By ALEXIS SOLOSKI
Two hours before any preview performance of “The Visit,” the Kander and Ebb musical that opens this month at the Lyceum Theater, you can find its star, Chita Rivera, in her dressing room. Upside down.
At 82, Ms. Rivera is a musical theater legend — and very much living. It has taken nearly 15 years to bring “The Visit,” an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy, to Broadway, and she has stuck with the show since its early days. She is determined to play the role of Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, as fully and richly and chillingly as possible — which means plenty of headstands.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Ms. Rivera lounged in that dressing room, a fairly sumptuous space by Broadway standards, decorated in yellow and blue and cream. Five floral bouquets brightened the place, and a pot of luxuriant white orchids was perched on the coffee table. Behind the sofa hung a gold-hued woodland landscape that Ms. Rivera had chosen because it reminds her of a favorite scene in the play, in which Claire reminisces with Anton (Roger Rees) about their long-ago lost passion. “Would that we could go/Back to long ago,” they sing wistfully.
Perhaps this makes “The Visit” sound cozily romantic. It isn’t. Onstage, in roles like Anita of “West Side Story” or Velma of “Chicago” or Aurora of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Ms. Rivera has always had a hard edge to go along with those impossibly lithe legs.
In “The Visit,” Claire returns to the town of her birth in what seems to be a bid to restore it to prosperity as well as to reclaim Anton, the lover who once wronged her. The catch? Before the largess flows, she wants Anton dead. In his postscript to the play, Dürrenmatt, who has a way with understatement, called it a “a somewhat distressing love story.”
Offstage, Ms. Rivera didn’t seem quite so vengeful, no matter how much black eyeliner she wore (a lot), as she chatted and sipped a giant mug of Throat Coat tea. (“I don’t do honey,” she said. “I’m always thinking of my weight.”) The play’s director, John Doyle, described her in an interview before a performance as “a thoroughly good human being” and “a really fine person,” worlds away from the murderous Claire.
Ms. Rivera demurred. “Oh no,” she said in her purring voice. “I’m perfectly cast.”
Producers had originally approached Angela Lansbury about the role, but when Ms. Lansbury’s husband fell ill, Ms. Rivera stepped up, which is just a little harder for her than it used to be. In 1986, a car accident broke her left leg in 12 places. Sixteen metal screws now hold it in place, a condition that Ms. Rivera feels when she rushes down the Lyceum’s rickety backstage stairs, underneath the stage and up another flight, as she must for an entrance in the middle of the play.
Ms. Rivera apparently would have accepted the role no matter how many stairs it demanded. She has Kander and Ebb (John Kander is still living at 88, and Fred Ebb died in 2004) and the book writer Terrence McNally to thank for her two Tony awards, as Anna in “The Rink” and Aurora in “Spider Woman.” She would have starred in anything they devised, she says. “If they wrote about the phone book, I would have done it,” she said.
And when she stands onstage, tight-lipped and imperious in a snow-white coat that several minks have died for, the role seems built for her alone. “I’m unkillable,” her Claire says. And the audience laughs. Because so, it seems, is Ms. Rivera.
Rehearsing a musical while performing it in previews at night is grueling stuff — for anyone at any age — but Ms. Rivera seemed to be managing it well. “I’ve never had to think she’s an elderly lady, I’d better stop early,” said Mr. Doyle, who has often directed macabre work, like “Sweeney Todd” and “Passion.” “I’ve not had to make any special favors or excuses or anything.”
During the earlier interview, Ms. Rivera was tired but eager for the evening’s performance. Ms. Rivera also seemed gratified to have finally brought Claire to Broadway, after playing her in productions at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in 2001, the Signature Theater outside Washington in 2008 and at the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer, with Mr. Doyle by then attached. It is only here, she suggested, that she feels fully at ease in Claire’s icy skin. “All of that time was necessary,” she said. “I’m ready for her now.”
Claire is a fairly grotesque figure. She travels with a large black coffin and a retinue that includes a baleful butler and two blind eunuchs. In the original version of the story, she also had a panther in tow. Though Ms. Rivera also played opposite a big cat in the 1983 flop “Merlin” (one bit off several of her nails), she does without a giant feline now.
Ms. Rivera has cut back in other ways, too. Though she’s best known as a dancer, Claire is largely a singing and acting role, and her voice has grown a little harsh. You might be forgiven for hearing a tinge of autobiography when the character sings, “I’m not the woman that I used to be/There’s no denying that there’s less of me.”
But late in the play, Ms. Rivera does kick up her heels in a joyous and mournful pas de deux with her younger self, played by Michelle Veintimilla. Even then, the heels don’t kick very high because Claire, unlike Ms. Rivera, walks with a cane. But Ms. Rivera is one of those dancers who is maximally suggestive with minimal movements. “She does it so effortlessly,” Ms. Veintimilla said in awed tones by telephone. “The smallest gesture of hers is completely captivating.”
When she was younger, Ms. Rivera might very well have taken Ms. Veintimilla’s role. She was often cast as lissome Gypsies — in “Bajour,” and “Zenda,” for example. When she stands opposite Ms. Veintimilla, she sees not only the Young Claire, but also a Young Chita. “I see myself,” she said. “I see me.”
The dancing is the easy part. What’s hard, Ms. Rivera said, is the stillness that the role demands elsewhere. Claire’s limited mobility — she has an artificial leg and a false hand — is in contrast to Ms. Rivera’s great energy. She mentioned that the show’s choreographer, her longtime friend Graciela Daniele, has a photograph of Ms. Rivera strapped to a chair. “It’s how they got me to sit down and take my five-minute break,” she said.
Playing Claire is an exercise in repression, Ms. Rivera suggested, sometimes making her feel “like a volcano” about to erupt. Similarly, Ms. Rivera has had to rein in her inner razzle-dazzle and her desire to please the crowd. She also has to temper her evident enthusiasm for the play’s love story. It isn’t the grotesquerie of “The Visit” that she responds to — that coffin, those eunuchs — but its passion. She seemed sentimental when speaking of Anton and Claire’s former romance, seemingly overlooking that he seduced and abandoned Claire and that she orders his execution.
“It’s very sad,” she finally admitted. “But there’s something to look forward to in their eternal love.” (Her co-star, the dapper Mr. Rees, is equally moony. “Anton is fascinated by Claire,” he wrote in an email. “And Roger is fascinated by Chita.” He added, “Every night she slays me.”)
Ms. Rivera prepares scrupulously for each performance, getting plenty of rest and arriving at the theater two and a half hours before curtain time. She lays a mat on the floor and does her stretches and headstands and vocal warm-ups. Cast members and well-wishers may stop in for a chat while she has a light snack.
After her hair, makeup and costuming are complete, she stands before a homemade altar — a hodgepodge of crucifixes, pictures, charms and knickknacks, including a skunk figurine, courtesy of Mr. Ebb, and a little metal cheetah, a decades-old gift from the cast of “Can-Can). “Let me say every word, every lyric,” Ms. Rivera prays. And she asks that joy infuse her work. Then she leaves the room, crosses herself, picks up Claire’s cane and goes on.
Rumor has it that Ms. Rivera intends to make “The Visit” her theatrical finale. That would come as little surprise: Though the show’s tonal fusion — half swoony, half grotesque — makes it a tricky sell on Broadway, her colleagues would not be surprised to see Ms. Rivera on the podium when the Tonys roll around. But retirement is not yet on her schedule, she said.
That night, she had only about a half-hour before she had to be begin preparations for that evening’s show, with only half a sandwich to sustain her. But it wasn’t food she was hungry for. It was more life, more work, more roles.
“I’m greedy,” she said with a smile that seemed a little ravenous, a little Claire-ish. “I haven’t had my fill.”