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The legends returns... Chita Rivera

The legends returns... Chita Rivera

The legend returns...

Words William J Connolly

Tonight, tonight... (sorry, we couldn’t resist) we welcome one of the greatest stars in history to the stage here at Cadogan Hall. From her star turn in Chicago to her legendary dazzle in West Side Story, there’s little Chita Rivera has taken on that hasn’t turned into a piece of theatrical history. But when you’ve a songbook catalogue taller than you, what do you sing? Well a little bit of everything obviously.

You’re here! Welcome back to London...

Oh my God! It’s my favourite place in the whole world. I love England and I was introduced to London at a wonderful, wonderful time with a wonderful project. I was just talking to a great friend of mine and pulled out a stinky cheese after dinner. It was brie and I thought about my darling friend Dr Patrick Woodcock who introduced me to the most amazing and best parties in the whole world here. He introduced me to Sir Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and I I was in London of course for West Side Story. It was a great, great time and it’s as fresh today as it was... I’m afraid to say how many years.

Just a couple...

A couple?! I totally agree! Actually, Leonard Bernstein would be 100 this year.

Oh my God!

I got an ‘oh my God’ out of you! It brought back such amazing memories of being and living in London. Yes, I would like to be 30 years younger but I wouldn’t give up this time for anything!

So for the three people who have been living under a rock, how would you describe who Chita Rivera is?
Crazy. First of all crazy, you have to be crazy to exist. You have to be crazy to open up to the lives of others. I’m honest, straightforward, I love to laugh more than anything. I love understanding and listening to the lives of others – as long as they’re not self indulgent as that’ll piss me off! I love the theatre and I really love life.

Speaking of theatre, when Club 11 came calling about performing here, did you snatch the opportunity?
Why wouldn’t I want to come back to a place that has such great memories?! I still have friends in London and I literally jumped!

Chatting with you for five minutes, I can vouch you love to laugh. When people come and see you live, either here or when you’re on Broadway, does that playfulness stay?
Erm yeah... I hope so. I hope it reminds them of certain things in their lives. I’m very serious on certain subjects. Pain for pain, joy for joy. There’s always a way to get out of anything painful and the last show I did, a couple of years ago, called ‘The Visit’ on Broadway; that’s a dark

show, but you have to know that dark in order to find the light and understand that we all go through that, and even in a show when it’s that dark I try to find light for me and others.

You are an icon and the awards and accolades you’ve received support that. Does it ever become ‘normal’ to have audiences across the world adore you in the ways they do?
Oh no, it never becomes normal. You’re scared to death it’s not going to happen. Fortunately, I have in my background those iconic shows I was lucky enough to be part of – and it is luck. It’s luck to be there when Bob Fosse says they want you for Chicago, and to be there when Leonard Bernstein wants you to do West Side Story plus Bye Bye Birdie and Spiderwoman. Those shows are still running, you can still talk about them, they’re subject matters that are unfortunately – like West Side – still present. It never becomes normal but richer the older it gets. I enjoy talking to the kids about them.

Have you ever seen anybody in costume or drag as you?

Oh yeah, I sure have. I have laughed. It’s an honour, a great honour because it’s fun.

You received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. What was that moment like?
I make a joke about a lot of things to make it palatable. A moment like that is so out of the ordinary that you feel lucky. I’m not taking anything from myself, I’m dedicated, I will work my ass off for you and I love it. To be chosen is extraordinary. It could so easily have been somebody else, it wasn’t, it was me and so I’m crazy about it – and the two of them! I’ve been to The White House several times. Obama? I have this picture of him putting the medal around my neck and there are only two words you can say and... I’m close to tears now thinking about it and I’ll cry any minute. They make it easy for you as they’re good people and know how you feel. I was thrilled my family could be there. I’m from DC so to look down that pond and see the Washington Monument, to see where my dad used to take us and run around and be kids. To know dad – who is gone, as it my mother – how proud they’d would be...

Gosh, bless you.

I don’t have them (my awards) at the front door but when you walk around the house.

Kate Winslet famously has her Oscar in the downstairs toilet.

That is so cute!

With your Tony’s and the rest, would you even have enough toilets in your house for them?
That’s funny! I’ve got one, two, three toilets and I’ve never thought about putting them in there. I’ve got three on my fireplace and I had them around the house. If you see it, you see it, but that’s funny she Kate Winslet) puts it there. I just don’t think I’d like to say that I put my award in the toilet!

Is your art and work influenced by the political rhetoric coming out of the USA?

You kind of have to be a little be careful, but honest about how you feel. I’m embarrassed, I’m not happy with him (Trump) at all representing me and my country. If you really catch me in my living room, you’d hear me use a different kind of language. What I am willing to say now is that I hope he’s not around very long representing us. Anything more would be a waste of time. I can’t believe he’s even there!

And speaking out about your own thoughts and values is an important today as it ever has been.
Absolutely! I just can't believe it. It’s something we don’t quite understand how it even happened. Who the hell did this?! It really does scare me about the way the mentality of some of our Americans. What were they thinking of?!

I imagine the rightful shift of women within the arts and entertainment industry is also something you welcome?
Yes! Sometimes things happen when they’re supposed to happen. You’re responsible to be ready for when it does and pushing it in the right direction. The #MeToo thing is a long conversation as I’m so curious about people jumping onboard, the wrong people taking advantage of situations. It’s about time we did have more directors, producers but we don’t want to lose our femininity either. I love the male, but if there’s such a thing as coming back, I want to come back as a woman. I think we’re rich, strong, we can take it and come back, we produce and it’s fabulous being a woman. We’re patience and, at times, very rich as females.

There’s been a sequel or remake of most things nowadays – many of which you’ve been apart of. How do you feel about them remaking West Side Story or anything similar?
Now I’ll tell you that they’re going to do that, West Side Story – you know that, right? Steven Spielberg. I have to say that, when you attach his name to it, I’m looking forward to it as long as they have that music. On the other hand, this is a story that’s lasted for so many years. There’s still these prejudices and confrontations so there’s still room for that story. Maybe told in another way? But Steven’s name on it and I want to see what he does with it. It’s hard to hear that music and not see those boys fly through the air.

What was it like working with Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland?

Ahhh... it was too good to be true! I kept pinching myself. That song, If My Friends Could See Me Now, boy does it fit. I loved her (Judy Garland) and flipped to be singing with her. She stimulates you. Good company is good and I loved doing The Rink with Liza. We did that together and there were a couple of times I’d look at her and start to chuckle. She’d ask what’s wrong and I’d say, ‘I’m playing your mother. This is funny!’ It was great.

That’s crazy.

You used the word crazy in the right way because some things are so fabulous and so big that you can’t find another word for fabulous, so you go ‘crazy’. It’s crazy!

And finally, what will your show here at Cadogan Hall give this waiting London audience?

I hope they get a friend. Somebody they can relate with. Somebody that can spread a lot of good memories. Somebody that comes from a time they can relate to the joy, the fun and sharing my life with them will be satisfying. I want them to have a fulfilled evening. I hope they laugh, hear interesting stories and maybe music they know. I hope they have a good time, that’s all! A good time.

And a good laugh if you’re around!

A good laugh, yes. A good ol’ laugh.

Laura Benanti - Our Fair Lady! 

Laura Benanti - Our Fair Lady! 

Our Fair Lady! 

Words William J Connolly

All we wanted was for a room somewhere in London with Laura Benanti singing songs in it. After all, she spends most of her days on The Great White Way singing about London in a rather impressive British accent – so having her here at Cadogan Hall feels like a homecoming of sorts.

For like the three of you that haven’t been near the internet in like forever, the Broadway leading lady is currently being showered with five-star reviews as Eliza Doolittle in the classic My Fair Lady – get the opening joke now, huh? And while it remains one of the most iconic stories and characters seen on stage, for Laura, it's more than just a role – it’s a dream come true. Eliza is somebody she’s wanted to play since she was a child. 

“It’s magical and this has been my dream part since I was four years old,” Laura smiles as we chat direct from NYC, her adorable daughter Ella in the background. “If you look back at any interview I’ve ever done, I talk about how I want to do My Fair Lady.”

A proud working mum, outspoken LGBTQ advocate and Broadway leading lady; here we speak to Laura about working with Patti LuPone in Gypsy; her art being influenced by the political situation in America, and if her daughter Ella will finally let mummy sing at home. Loverly! 

Laura, what does theatre mean to you?

Theatre is, for me, the ancient art form of communication. It’s something we’ve been doing around since we had fire and even since before that. It’s the way we communicate our stories from generation to generation, in particular in this age of 15-second attention spans and all of us being so obsessed with our screens. It’s an opportunity to put our phones down and all feel our hearts beating at the same place and at the same time as we enjoy these performers who are putting their heart and soul into this story for us. It almost feels like… I don’t want to say going back in a way that feels like theatre isn’t new anymore as it’s always changing, evolving and growing like we are as people, but I feel like it’s a way for us to communicate with each other at a time where it doesn’t really feel like we do that anymore. 

Have you noticed that people are longing for that level of escapism more and more? 

I think that it’s something we’ve always longed for. If it’s not iPhones, it’s something else. There’s always been a need for us to escape our daily lives, but I do think the feeling of connection is maybe harder for some people to get into now because we’re so used to text connection which is a very different thing. I think audiences have always wanted an escape and so I don’t know if it’s now more than ever necessarily, but I know for myself that I need it more than ever. 

Thinking back through your career, you’ve had the chance to work with some of the biggest names and be involved in some of the greatest projects. Do you have one that stands out? 

Gypsy, for sure! I mean… Patti LuPone is one of my favourite people on this earth. I love her with all of my heart and getting to perform and sing with her in that iconic role and in that iconic show was a ‘pinch me’ moment. And then getting to meet Gypsy Rose Lee’s son and have him hug me and saying how much I remind him of his mother was all just a really incredible time. 

And that Tony Awards performance is literally iconic! 

Oh my gosh, I will never forget that for as long as I live. To see every single person in Radio City Music Hall leap to their feet, I’d never seen that before – and I’ve done multiple Tony Awards. Every single person leapt to their feet, it was unlike anything I will ever experience again most likely. 

Not that you ever would, but did being in that show with Patti also teach you to never use a mobile phone in a theatre? 

Oh yeah. The thing about theatre that’s so incredible is that it’s not meant to live beyond the moment. And so, to take out your phone and film it is to turn it into something else. You can’t make a three dimensional thing into a two dimensional event and have it carry the same weight.

You’ve worked with Patti, so who is next on the wish list of people to work with?

Oh my goodness. I mean… I always want to work with Patti again, for sure. I’ve worked with Chita Rivera, Antonio Banderas. Who would I want to work with, that’s a great question? Look who is not going to say Meryl Streep? I would probably be arrested by the theatre police if I did not say Meryl Streep. Angela Lansbury?! I love Angela Lansbury, she’s amazing! 

The roles that you play are always varied. Are you drawn to roles that are challenges and different to the last? 

Yes, absolutely! I really have tried in my career to diversify myself because it’s very easy in any industry to be pigeonholed. I started as a young person playing Maria in The Sound of Music at 18 and then more serious roles like Cinderella from Into The Wood – more ingénue roles. I made an effort to do straight plays and take on more full of character in nature because I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as just the ingénue. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but I wanted a career like Angela Lansbury or Patti LuPone where it extends beyond wide-eyed soprano world. And with those roles, I tried to view those characters with a wisdom or a sense of humour that hadn’t necessarily always been there before. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a departure from what I’d done before. 

How does the current political rhetoric in America impact your art?

I have put a lot of effort into maintaining my values, despite the values of the people in office not reflecting what I believe. I produced an album called Singing You Home - Children's Songs for Family Reunification. We have a wide array of really incredible artists and it’s a dual language album where all the proceeds go to reuniting the families separated at the border. I’m really trying to use art for good. Even with my Melania Trump impression on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I hope to bring levity but also it is a skewering of sorts and I feel grateful that I have an opportunity to give voice to my beliefs in a way that’s humorous and therefore more palatable for people.

Does impersonating Melania Trump come with a backlash? 

Yes, I’ve got death threats, people have threatened my child. It’s been all through Twitter which is terrifying, but I’ve had quite a bit of hate come my way. That’s always scary.

One thing you’re incredibly outspoken about is LGBTQ advococy. You’ve used your voice and platform to speak up. As an ally, do you feel the rising concern from queer people about their rights and their place with both America and the wider world? 

I do. Yes. I don’t think it’s just here in the States but all over the world, we are seeing now a genocide of queer people in more than one place – and that to me is absolutely terrifying. My late uncle was gay and an incredible drag performer and he, when I was young, had a partner who was black. In the 70s and 80s in Washington D.C. to be a gay man with a black partner was taking your life in your own hands, basically. He lost many of his friends to HIV/AIDs in the 80s and he taught me from a very young age, and my parents, that love is love. It’s been a very important part of my life on a personal level sine I can remember. And now, I think certainly queer people being subject to hatred to violence is not new, but I do think in an era where we have Queer Eye, Will and Grace and this openness, it feels terrifying to me to know that some queer people are afraid for their lives. 

It does seem almost impossible to understand that your country operates a military ban on transgender service people. 

Urgh. We have a Commander in Chief that has never served… in any capacity! The fact that he is saying that people who are willing to risk their lives for their country and not allowed to do so because of how they identify, I literally cannot even wrap my brain around it. I. Do. Not. Understand. I cannot understand it and I never will.

I know that a big part of your time on Broadway is about the balance between being a mum and being a leading lady. Do you think the theatre community is becoming more welcoming to new parents? 

Y’know, I don’t know the answer to that, really. I can tell you that My Fair Lady has embraced Elle wholeheartedly. Her best friend is Rosemary Harris who is 91-years-old and had dinner with in between shows. Ella does dance performances for the cast, and they have been incredible about having her there in between shows. I bring her to every single Stephen Colbert performance and they’re also incredible. For me, being an actress is all I’ve ever known and all I’ve ever wanted but so is being a mom to Ella. 

And I love the interview you did where you said she’s not the biggest fan of your singing. Is she a fan yet?

Laura: Now she sort of does. Ella, do you like mommy’s singing? 

Ella in the background on the phone: Yes. 

Laura: Ella has a beautiful voice. Can you sing loverly? All I want is a… Ella has a beautiful voice. Mommy is now allowed to sing more than she was used to. Before it was not at all. 

Let’s talk about My Fair Lady as it’s one of the best shows ever. Are you just having the best time?

I am. I legitimately am, even on the days where I’ve not had a day off and am so tired. I feel genuinely thrilled when I’m on a stage. There’s not a moment where I’m questioning why I’m doing this. It’s magical and this has been my dream part since I was four years old. If you look back at any interview I’ve ever done, I talk about how I want to do My Fair Lady. When it first came around, I’d just had Ella. I couldn’t believe that both my dreams were happening at once and I chose to be with Ella. When it came back around and offered me to replace, I was beyond excited. It’s seven shows per week instead of eight, which is amazing. 

And finally, we are here for your concert at Cadogan Hall. As your audience are sat waiting for your arrival, how do you think you’ll be feeling?

Oh my gosh, I’m beyond excited! The last time I went to London, I was 15. I have not been in many years and the idea of playing this hall is thrilling. I’m very excited! I will have flown on the Friday night and fly back on Monday to do the show so it’s going to be a quick dip but I’m so excited.

And being here for a quick visit means it’s the perfect excuse for you to come back and maybe see you in the West End? 

I mean… I would love that! 

Ella in the background on the phone: Bye bye! 

Erich Bergen

Erich Bergen

Erich Bergen: More than a cabaret

Some actors may fear the dreaded typecasting, but for a performer as diverse and talented as Erich Bergen, it has been easy to avoid.

Sparkle 2015 12.6.15 - photo by Andrew Werner, AHW_5518.jpg

“It's a balance,” he admits. “I'm someone who is sort of obsessed with working. I'm not very good at vacationing. I've been obsessed with entertainment and show business for as long as I can remember. I'm always working on something.” 

But whether that work is playing the loyal assistant Blake Moran in hit TV series Madam Secretary or taking a star turn in Clint Eastwood’s film version of Jersey Boys, Erich approaches each role with obsessive dedication – as they represent part of a world he longed to inhabit from his earliest memories. 

“I was obsessed with MTV growing up in the 80's,” he recalls. “I had a lot of energy and not a great ability to focus. All things rock and pop became my world. And I'm talking at 3 years old. My parents brought me to my first concert in 1989 when I was 3, which was Whitney Houston at Madison Square Garden. I remember that night so vividly because of the effect that it had on me. It wasn't until I was about 10 that my Mom brought me to a Broadway show, which was the musical version of the movie BIG. It was a big flop, but when I saw it I fell in love with it because there were kids in the show my age, who were dancing and singing and acting. Just by watching that I immediately became interested.

“My parents sent me to Stagedoor Manor, which was a theatre summer camp in upstate New York, and I went to that summer camp for 7 years. So I always knew that I wanted to be a performer. But what exactly that was has morphed a couple of times over. I thought I was gonna be a rock star, then I thought I was gonna be a boyband guy. And then I discovered theatre, which changed my whole world. I never saw myself on television, that's just something that happened after I went to Los Angeles to start auditioning. So each part of my career is something that's developed in time, I didn't know it all immediately.”

A chance spotting at a youth performance led to signing with a talent manager, who Erich stayed with for the next twenty years. Auditions, the finer points of acting and industry lingo, he admits, were learned on-the-go. Yet while a youth spent in after-school stage clubs and theatre camps fostered a love for the Broadway stage, did he ever worry that the focus on theatre was closing more mainstream doors in TV and film? 

“I had that said to me a lot when I was first going out to LA. What I found out was that it didn't end up being true,” he recalls. “I was out in LA for the first time when I was on the national tour of Jersey Boys. At that time we had a Hamilton like buzz around us and I was able to get into a lot of rooms, and I found that the TV executives and casting people all came from the theatre world in New York and loved theatre people. I think the proof is when you look on American TV and see the number of shows filled with people who started out or are currently on Broadway.

While his daring and dedication have led to him treading boards and studio halls across the United States, he remains painfully aware of the harsher aspects of a career in performing. But, he says, the solution is a relatively simple one.

The only piece of advice I’ve ever been able to give out to people who feel like they are in a rut creatively or professionally in this industry is to create your own work

“I have a lot of friends who feel stuck with their careers – can't get auditions and can't get jobs,” he states. “The only piece of advice I've ever been able to give out to people who feel like they are in a rut creatively or professionally in this industry is to create your own work. Write your way out of the situation. I started writing and amazing things happened. As actors, we've put ourselves completely at the mercy of other people to eat. As soon as you can write your own stuff you've immediately given yourself control of that. That's always been the best, and frankly, the only advice I could give.”

With simply following the directions given to him as an actor not enough, Erich began flexing his own creative muscle – by putting together his own act and building up new projects. An entrepreneurial trait shared by fellow New Yorker Christina Bianco [link to her interview] and Something he believes every performer worth their salt should be trying if they want to step themselves up the ladder. 

“There's an element of what I do that wasn't being explored – that was as a live concert performer,” he emphasises. “I wasn't finding a way to bridge that world. Jersey Boys was the perfect job for me because it gave me the chance not only to sing that rock and pop music I grew up loving but it also gave me the opportunity to act. It merged all of my worlds together. So I began to create these club acts – I hate the word 'cabaret' – which I always wanted to do. I put together songs and told stories. As soon as you can say 'I have something', with a little bit of pushing people will usually say 'great – let's see it!' Then I started to write music. I was living in Las Vegas and I had just been dumped by my girlfriend at the time. I was feeling so alone, sitting at home completely bored. So I started writing songs as that's how the feelings naturally came out. Because of that, I was able to start putting out albums. One thing led to another. 

“Now I've done the same thing with a TV show. I'd always wanted to write a script of some kind. But I never really had the guts to finish one. One day last year, I had a few days off so sat down and started writing. Three days later I finished a pilot script. Now the TV show is in the hands of producers and we’re pitching it to TV networks. So if you just do it and finish it you're so many steps ahead.

 “If you're an actor and only an actor you're at the mercy of everyone else – producers, writers, directors, choreographers. You are a tool for them and you're waiting on them to give you a job. So as soon as you add one of those things to your name you get to have a little bit more control.”

Spanning creative disciplines and musical genres with ease, how does he feel about performing his own work compared to that of other composers?

“When it's something I've written I don't have to approach it. It's just there,” he muses. “If I'm performing a song I've written I don't feel that I have to think about anything, because the words and thoughts are already on the tip of my tongue. The opening chords of certain songs will take me back to a particular place. So I don't really have to do that work. Whereas, if I'm singing a song by someone else, I have to take a moment to think 'What does the writer want to accomplish and how do I make this sound the best?'”

But as a performer who enjoys stepping out of character to tell his own stories, I can't help but ask, why the dislike of branding himself as a cabaret act? 

“When I think of cabaret I think of a woman wearing a dress with too much shoulder padding singing Sondheim songs very badly,” he laughs. “Also, it has multiple meanings to different people. You say 'cabaret' and to some, that means a strip club. Even for people who think of it as a small club with a mic and a piano – I don't want them to think that's what this is. That is not what I do at all. My concert may be in a cabaret venue, but I bring an 8 piece band and we're doing funk, RnB, rock, pop. Yes, we’re telling stories and doing medleys, but it’s not in any way what people would think of as cabaret. It's a concert, except you don't have to stand all the time.”

It's a philosophy which is reflected well in the performers he idolises – Peter Allen, Barry Manilow, and Donny Osmond. “People who come from a theatre background but aren't necessarily singing theatre music,” he states. 

With the strong desire of differentiating himself as an artist and drawing inspiration from his multi-platform past work, Erich looks forward to gracing London with his own unique brand of live concerts. It will, he emphasises, include material to please all ears. 

If you have a thought or an inkling, go do it. Because that’s going to be the thing that saves your life and saves your career

“I keep it eclectic. There's stuff from the musical theatre world but there's stuff from the pop world and from the movies. I cover everyone from Billy Joel to Elton John to Michael Jackson. I approach singing the same way I'd approach a scene on television: from a character place. I don't think of it as a melody line – I think of songs as wherever the character is at that time.”

Yet while he still dreams of playing Bobby in Company or King George in Hamilton, Erich seems most at home when pioneering his own ideas. It's a philosophy he readily passes on to anybody who wishes to follow in his footsteps. 

“If you have a thought or an inkling, go do it. Because that's going to be the thing that saves your life and saves your career.”

Come and see theatre's most diverse leading man as he takes to the stage at The Hippodrome Casino. Don't call it cabaret – it's so much more! Buy your tickets now.