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    Chita Rivera, Finding Her Voice

    Yes, the legs. Yes, the line. Yes, the look.

    But also, less commented on, the voice.

    Chita Rivera, who died on Tuesday at 91, was a Broadway star as long as anyone — and maybe longer. At first, making her way up in the 1950s, from the chorus of “Guys and Dolls” to Anita in “West Side Story,” dancing was her calling card. In the ’60s and ’70s, comedy and satire followed, with “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Chicago.” Later, in works like “The Rink” (1984), “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993) and “The Visit” (2015), her sense of drama prevailed.

    Yet for me, it’s her voice that remains indelible.

    It almost didn’t emerge. Back when she started, dancers stayed in their own lane. (There were often separate ensembles for dancers and singers.) Like many people exceptionally intent on mastery, Rivera was single-minded. At her audition for the School of American Ballet at 15, she kept tossing off fouetté turns despite a burst blister that was bleeding through her toe shoe. George Balanchine himself dressed the wound. (She was accepted.)

    Mastery is not what she felt about her singing. As she relates in “Chita: A Memoir,” written with Patrick Pacheco, she always “hung back” when cast members went out after shows to drink and flirt and belt out show tunes. But while she was on tour with “Call Me Madam” in the early 1950s, a piano player at a theatrical hangout in Chicago overheard her and offered lessons. “Chita, you can sing,” he said.

    “I could sing? Really? That was news to me.”

    There are singers who make sure it’s news — they’re great. And then there are those who just sing naturally, with little break from their speaking voices. Rivera, perhaps because she at first felt less confident in song than in movement, never got fussy about the border between dialogue and lyrics. She plowed right past it, sounding exactly alike in both: slightly reedy, husky yet clarion, unaffected but full of comment and character.

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