Chita Rivera: Broadway Icon from ‘West Side Story’ Dies at 91

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Chita Rivera, a two-time Tony winner with eight further nominations, died on Tuesday morning from a brief illness, according to her publicist. She was 91.

The actor, singer, and dancer played Anita in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story,” as well as the title character in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and Velma Kelly in “Chicago.”

Chita Rivera Biography

Chita Rivera Career Graphs

According to a popular newspaper’s review of her 2005 career retrospective, “Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life,” Rivera’s appeal rested “in her expert technique and the infectious pleasure she derives from it.” She has always been a pro’s pro in a world of harsh assessments and mythological standards.”

Rivera created several famous characters that other performers would take on and make their own. However, she rarely represented these characters outside of theater performances.

Rivera described herself as “a chorus dancer who went through the whole race.” “I think I can cope with anything that comes up,” she said.

She was on the path to a classical dance career when in 1952 Rivera joined a friend on an audition for the Broadway version of “Call Me Madam.” The friend was not chosen as the lead dancer, but Rivera was. Following her Broadway debut, she performed in “Can-Can,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Mr. Wonderful,” and “Shinbone Alley.”

However, her slowly rising fame skyrocketed in 1957 when she starred in “West Side Story.” The production, created, produced, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, was groundbreaking, combining a jazzy score with a gritty, urban take on “Romeo and Juliet.” The performers wore shoes and denim, snapped their fingers, and used slang.

Rivera captivated viewers with her vivacious performance as Anita, the show’s heroine’s best friend and the fiancée of Maria’s brother Bernardo.

She said Robbins helped her discover her personality as a dancer. Rehearsals used Method-style “reality” approaches, such as keeping the actors portraying the warring gangs apart.

Rivera felt herself digging into character for the first time. Rivera advised dancers to “do exactly what the choreographer tells them to do.” But all of a sudden, we had this kind of independence, which required you to cope with your own emotions and intellect.”

Chita Rivera, now a true star, followed up “West Side Story” with starring roles in Broadway productions of “Bye Bye Birdie” (for which she received her first Tony nomination) and “Bajour.” She also performed in “Born Yesterday,” “The Rose Tattoo,” “Threepenny Opera,” “Kiss Me Kate,” and “Sweet Charity.”

In 1969, she repeated her role as Nickie in a rare film adaptation of her stage production, “Sweet Charity,” starring Shirley MacLaine.

In 1975, she played Velma Kelly in the Broadway musical “Chicago.” In honor of her contribution, she made a cameo appearance in the 2002 film adaptation, which featured Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere.

In 1984, she featured in the Broadway musical “The Rink,” alongside Liza Minnelli. Her work as Anna earned her her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.

Her dancing career was cut short in 1986 when she was injured in a vehicle accident and shattered her leg 12 times. For other dancers, this may have ended their car career-enders for Rivera, the soldier who could handle anything. “They tell me my return to Broadway is one of those classic showbiz stories,” she went on to say.

In “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in 1993, she made a triumphant comeback to Rialto. The creative trio that helped her win her first Tony for “The Rink” — composer and lyricist John Kander and Fred Ebb, and librettist Terrence McNally — also helped her win a second Tony for leading actress in a musical.

She wouldn’t return to Broadway for another decade until she played Lilane la Fleur in the revival of “Nine.” The role garnered her another Tony Award nomination.

In 2005, she appeared in “Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life,” a three-month Broadway retrospective of her career. Rivera appeared as Princess Puffer in a Broadway revival of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in 2012 and as the world’s richest woman in a revival of the Kander and Ebb musical “The Visit” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2014. It later played on Broadway. Speaking of her lengthy devotion to the show, she told Variety, “It takes an audience numerous places; it’s rich. I enjoy being prosperous.”

In 2018, Rivera received his third Tony Award for lifetime achievement in theatre.

Chita Rivera also had sporadic appearances in films and television. She appeared on “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” several times throughout the 1973-74 season. She most recently appeared in the TV series “Will & Grace” and the Internet skein “Submissions Only.” In addition, she appeared in a few television films, including “Pippin: His Life and Times” (1981) and “Mayflower Madam” (1987).

She has also released several cast albums and three solo albums, including 2009’s “And Now I Swing.”

Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., to a Scottish mother and a Puerto Rican father. She was a tomboy from an early age. When Rivera was seven years old, her father died, and her mother went to work for the Pentagon. Rivera directed her daughter’s energies by enrolling her in dance school when she was 11.

Rivera showed talent and was accepted at age 15 to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. There, she learned techniques that she would use throughout her long career.

Chita Rivera was given the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Her daughter, singer-dancer-choreographer Lisa Mordente, from her marriage to “West Side Story” co-star Tony Mordente; her siblings Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero (her older sister Carmen predeceased her); and several nieces and nephews survive her.

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