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Chita Rivera Slings Opium in a New Edwin Drood

Half a lifetime ago, Chita Rivera—daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant—was turned down for a role because some clown of a director declared her “not Latin enough.” This week, at 79, she’s stepping into the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood as a nineteenth-century London actress playing an opium-den madam, and not only is nobody batting an eye; she’s the marquee star. “I like her,” she says affectionately of her character, “because she understands and accepts those who belong to the seedy side of life.”

When Drood was first staged in 1985, Rivera probably wouldn’t have been considered for the role, and you can read that shift as commentary on the gradual opening-up of Broadway casting. But it’s just as surely about Rivera herself, whose singing, dancing—still exceptional despite age and a mid-career car accident that shattered her leg—and onstage charisma long ago busted through any such pigeonholes. The show is a high-concept musical based on Charles Dickens’s unfinished final novel, a murder mystery in which the audience chooses the ending. (Oddly, she didn’t see it in its first incarnation: “I was performing in Jerry’s Girls,” on the same schedule, she explains.) We’d like to suggest that the producers broaden the menu a little: Since it’s Chita, how about a version in which the old broad gets to dance a little?

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum/New York Magazine