Broadway Legend Chita Rivera Dies at 91 | Playbill

Obituaries Broadway Legend Chita Rivera Dies at 91

Ms. Rivera was a three-time Tony recipient, and a beloved icon of the stage and screen.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Stage and screen star Chita Rivera passed away January 30 after a brief illness. She was 91. The news was confirmed by her family. 

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, Ms. Rivera was an icon of the stage, originating the role of Anita in West Side Story as well as Velma Kelly in Chicago. A ten-time Tony nominee, she received the Best Actress in a Musical prize for her performances in Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.

Born and raised in Washington D.C., Ms. Rivera was the daughter of Katherine (neé Anderson), a government clerk, and Pedro Julio del Rivero, a clarinetist and saxophonist, who died when Ms. Rivera was seven years old. In 1944, Ms. Rivera's mother enrolled her in the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet (now the Jones Haywood School of Dance), where she soon caught the attention of a teacher from George Balanchine's School of American Ballet.

Ms. Rivera was one of two students picked by the guest teacher to audition in New York City, where she was given a scholarship to study dance. Ms. Rivera made her Broadway debut at 20 in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls, following her first professional theatrical dance job on tour with Elaine Stritch in Call Me Madam. She spent much of the 1950s dancing in a variety of original musical comedies, including Can-Can, Seventh Heaven, Mr. Wonderful, and Shinbone Alley, before destiny came calling.

In 1957, Ms. Rivera originated the role of Anita in Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story. Ms. Rivera's performance as the strong-willed Puerto Rican immigrant became the blueprint for actresses to follow, including Rita Moreno, whose performance of Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story would kick off a (mostly-joking) rivalry between the two in the media as two triple-threat Latinas in a white-dominated industry.

Following West Side Story, Ms. Rivera starred in Bye Bye Birdie, bringing in her first Tony nomination as the romantic Rosie, although Janet Leigh stepped into the role for the 1963 film adaptation. Following the high school classic, Ms. Rivera went on to originate roles in several less successful productions, including Bajour, Bring Back Birdie, and Merlin, as well as Chicago opposite Gwen Verdon. 

Originally considered a financial failure, Chicago was revitalized by the still-running City Center Encores' revival in 1996, with Ms. Rivera's blessing. In 1999, Ms. Rivera appeared on the national tour of the revival as Roxie Hart, and she went on to make a cameo in the 2002 Oscar winning film adaptation as the first inmate to greet Roxie Hart at the Cook County Jail.

On the road and the silver screen, Ms. Rivera starred in Sweet Charity as directed by Bob Fosse, playing the role of Nickie in the 1969 film adaptation. She returned to Broadway in 1984, winning her first Tony as Anna in Kander and Ebb's The Rink. Written explicitly for her, the rarely-produced musical played directly into her talents as a dancer and vocalist, leading to great acclaim. 

Following Jerry's Girls, a Jerry Herman revue, Ms. Rivera would spend less time on the stage. After a severe car accident that broke her left leg in twelve places, requiring eighteen screws and two braces to mend, Ms. Rivera underwent extensive rehabilitation, coming back for the national tour of Can-Can before opening her namesake restaurant, Chita's, with novelist Daniel Simone. Located on 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue, the restaurant was popular with after-theater crowds, operating until 1994.

Less than one decade after The Rink, Kander and Ebb would write yet another Tony-winning role for Ms. Rivera in the form of Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman. The musical was a smashing success, winning seven Tonys and running for nearly 1,000 performances. 

Her appearances on Broadway were sparse in the new century, but no less impactful, with Ms. Rivera appearing in the revivals of Nine and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as Kander and Ebb's The Visit. In 2005, she presented her own solo show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life, for which she was Tony nominated. Ms. Rivera later took the production out on the road, capping off her extensive history touring the United States.

In a 2015 Playbill interview for The Visit, which would be Ms. Rivera's final Broadway bow, the actress share, “When you’re with people that are really giving you stuff that feeds you and makes you do things, it’s energizing! When someone makes you laugh. When someone makes you cry. They touch you so... and you like them. You don’t wanna die then, you just wanna get that person and stay there. It’s living. That’s what life is all about.”

Ms. Rivera was the first Latina and the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2017, The Astaire Awards were rebranded The Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography.

In 2023, Ms. Rivera published her autobiography, Chita: A Memoir, which became a New York Times Best Seller. She is survived by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, her siblings Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero, and her many nieces, nephews and friends. 

Her funeral will be private. A memorial service will be announced at a later date.

Celebrate Broadway Legend Chita Rivera

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