Chita & ‘chicas’: WSS’s original ‘America’ dance crew

Dance · Theater
Chita Rivera out front.
Behind, L to R: Carmen Gutierrez, Lynn Ross, Liane Plane (unseen behind Chita), Frances Taylor

“Chita was so incredible as Anita,” our friend George Chakiris told the audience when I interviewed him in 2015. He played “Riff” in the London production of West Side Story circa 1958/59. Doing that meant keeping up with the tornado playing the girlfriend of his theatrical rival Bernardo. That was Anita — Chita Rivera. In London, Chita was carrying forth with her triumph on Broadway, originating the role. George remembered vividly that Chita Rivera was the toast of the London.

George continued,

Chita Rivera … was, and is, such an amazing performer and dancer so it made sense to give “America” to … just to give it to Chita. In the film, not because somebody else was better or not, they wanted to integrate it with the guys which made much more sense, it made it much more playful, the exchange between the guys and the girls… it was a beautiful number staged by Jerome Robbins.

“Give it to Chita’ is a typical way show-biz people talk about song-and-dance numbers — and who stars, and “kills,” in them.

Peter Gennaro, who choreographed the original steps (overseen and staged by Jerome Robbins) for this biting, fun number (which, good lord, could never, ever come to pass today) to Leonard Bernstein’s rip-roaring music, originally conceived of “America” as a dance hoedown between the Shark gang’s boys and girls. Robbins, surely recognizing the firecracker he had in Chita Rivera, converted “America” to a number for ladies only. When the 1961 movie came about, “America” was again changed to include the men. Starring was Mr. Chakiris, playing Bernardo as a suave devil of a Puerto Rican gentleman. Are you following all this??

A related tale concerns one of Chita’s chicas. The “fabulous Frances Taylor,” as our friend Christian Holder calls her, dances at far right in the photo above. In her off hours Frances attracted the eye of Miles Davis. That was the good news. Unfortunately, Davis, domineering and surely insecure because no secure man would do this, forced her to leave the show. In the photo, Taylor reveals a spectacular leg musculature reflecting some serious ballet training. How I wish I had seen her dance.

But I did meet her. We ran into Frances in her later life, in 2010. That happened at, of all places, the erstwhile Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard at the gateway to Beverly Hills. We often stopped there before or after theater on the West side. Now we can’t anymore because, like so many beloved spots in Ye Olde Los Angeles, it is in that Big Hamburger Hamlet in the sky.

London 1958/59: L to R: Yvonne Othon, Roberta Keith, Chita Rivera, Gloria Higdon, and Lina Soriano.

Before we go, let’s hear George in his own voice singing “America” from the 1961 movie. Singing for Rita Moreno was a dubbed vocalist.

TheContractSessions · America – Cast of West Side Story

A big artsmeme thanks to Christian Holder for photo/photo i.d.s, corroborated by Grover Dale. Thank you both!

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