March 05, 1984 12:00 PM

Far above the footlights on a barren stage called heaven, Judy Garland and Katherine del Rivero are having a devilishly good time. “They’re just sitting up there having coffee and looking down at us running around onstage,” jokes Katherine’s daughter Chita Rivera. “They’re laughing and saying: ‘Look at them. Just look at them!’ ”

On the earthly stage called Broadway, that’s just what audiences are doing as Chita, 51, and Liza Minnelli, 37, play a feuding mother and daughter patching old wounds in The Rink. In Hollywood, the fragile mother-daughter bond is this year’s meaningful topic (as evidenced by the 11 Academy Award nominations garnered by Terms of Endearment). Now Broadway has stepped in, and despite some strong critical pans (a “turgid, sour new musical,” said the New York Times), The Rink is selling out at the box office. Even men are hooked: Michael Jackson raved about it, and Prince Rainier took time out on his recent U.S. visit to bring his three children to the show. “Their mother was a princess, but they can relate to this,” says Liza, who believes that the emotional conflicts of a lower-class Italian mother and her daughter are universal.

Never mind the story line—a mawkish thread about an aging hippie’s attempt to keep her mother from selling the family roller rink. The appeal is the casting. The Rink originally was created as a vehicle for Rivera by her Broadway buddies composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Though Minnelli too was an old friend of Kander and Ebb and had worked with them on such shows as Cabaret, The Act and Liza With a Z, no one figured she would play a supporting role to the star, Chita. Liza, however, couldn’t wait. “I saw Chita in Bye Bye Birdie when I was about 13 and it changed my life. I looked at her and said: ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” remembers Liza.

One day last summer, over a bite with Rivera in a Broadway saloon, Minnelli suggested she play Angel, Chita’s chunky, shlumpy daughter in The Rink. Once cast, she happily gorged herself on pasta and deep-dish apple pie and gained 14 pounds for the role (though eight-hour-a-day rehearsals helped her lose them). Even when a man walking down the street accidentally stepped on her toe and broke it, she was unperturbed. “It’s a part. It’s a character,” explains Liza. “I felt this play might remind people that I can act instead of just sing. Sure I still have my Halstons, they’re still in the closet. But I’m so thrilled I don’t have to put on those false eyelashes. I’m so thrilled there’s not one sequin in sight.”

Minnelli is also delighted, she says, to be back onstage with Chita. Liza had stepped in for an ailing Gwen Verdon for five weeks during the run of Chicago in 1975, playing opposite Rivera. They have been friends ever since. “She’s a force and she thinks I’m a force,” says Minnelli. “It’s like two grounding poles, and there’s this electrical thing that goes VROOM.” Chita feels a maternal protectiveness toward Liza. “I look at Liza and I see my Lisa [Lisa Mordente, 25, Rivera’s daughter by Tony Mordente, a dancer Chita met during West Side Story].”

At certain moments before the opening, the two women closeted themselves in a dressing room and tearily discussed the mother-daughter bond. Chita identifies with her mom, a former government clerk who died last year. “At 78, she had great legs,” she says. “And she had a young soul.” Adds Liza: “We’d come home every night holding our eyeballs. It was very traumatic. It brought up a lot of stuff.” Liza admits that prior to this experience her tendency was to keep emotional matters to herself: “Chita would say: ‘Now come on, babe, it’s good to open up some of those closet doors,’ and I’d say: ‘Chita, didn’t you see Poltergeist? Do you remember when that thing comes out of the closet and goes “Aargh!” I’ve had elbows against closet doors my entire life. I don’t want to see the monster! I don’t want to remember all that.’ ”

Some of her memories, perhaps, are of her fragile, troubled mother, Judy Garland, who died tragically in 1969. “We never got stoned together like the characters in the play, but we did get close by laughing a lot,” says Liza. “Sure, sometimes I was the mother and she the daughter, but that shift happens in all relationships. The love was always there, even in the bad times.”

Now that it’s the good times, neither Liza nor Chita is giving much thought to the future beyond at least a six-month Broadway run. Chita intimates, however, that she just might find time to marry her longtime boyfriend, Robert Fehribach, a Broadway electrician. Liza, who has suffered two miscarriages, says she and her producer/-sculptor husband, Mark Gero, still hope for a family.

For the moment, both women are content to strike a chord in The Rink. Chita likes to tell how a friend observed a mother and daughter in the audience kiss each other on the cheek mid-show. As they got up to leave, each told the other she loved her. “That’s what this is all about,” says Chita. Forget the critics. This show is about mothers—and if theirs are watching, as Chita hopes, they’d be proud.

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