NEW YORK: Chita Rivera, the musical theatre legend and multiple Tony winner who created the role of Puerto Rican firebrand Anita on Broadway in “West Side Story” and other memorable characters, has died at the age of 91.
The petite, raven-haired dancer, singer and actress made history when she became the first Hispanic woman to receive a prestigious Kennedy Center Honour in 2002. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009.
“It is with great sadness that Lisa Mordente, the daughter of Chita Rivera, announces the death of her beloved mother who died peacefully on Tuesday, January 30, 2024 in New York after a brief illness,” her daughter Lisa said in a statement.
Rivera was nominated for 10 Tony awards and won twice. She also received a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in 2018 for a career that spanned nearly seven decades.
Celebrated playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the book for Rivera’s Tony-winning roles in “The Rink” opposite Liza Minnelli in 1984 and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” a decade later, described her as “a walking history book of the golden age of American musical theatre.”
From the chorus in 1950s Broadway musicals “Guys and Dolls” and “Can-Can,” Rivera moved to centre stage as murderess Velma Kelly in the original 1975 Broadway production of “Chicago” and created the role of Rose in the surprise hit “Bye, Bye Birdie” with Dick Van Dyke in 1960.
But it was her portrayal of the sassy, hip-swaying Anita sashaying across the stage singing “America” or warning her friend about “A Boy Like That” in “West Side Story” that made Rivera a star.
“To be there when those geniuses created that show was something that is a blessing, you know. It’s something that you can never, ever forget,” Rivera once said about the groundbreaking musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.
Nobody Like Chita
“When she let those limbs loose she was a one-woman showstopper and every choreographer wanted her,” award-winning producer and director Harold Prince once said. “There is nobody who can dance, sing and act like Chita Rivera.”
Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero on Jan 23, 1933 in Washington, D.C. Her father, Puerto Rican musician Pedro Julio Figueroa del Rivero, died when she was seven.
One of five children, she studied ballet from a young age and won a scholarship to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York. She was still a teenager when, on a whim, she auditioned with a friend for the touring company of the musical “Call Me Madam” and landed a role.
“I always tell kids today never to look down on the chorus and working there,” Rivera said in an interview with the website thestage.co.uk in 2015. “It’s an extraordinary place to be – you will learn everything you will eventually have to do.”
In 1957 she married Tony Mordente, an actor and dancer in the show. She was such an integral part of “West Side Story” that its London production had to be delayed until after she gave birth to her only child, Lisa, in 1958.
Rivera’s career was interrupted in 1986 when she suffered a compound leg fracture in a car accident in New York while appearing in “Jerry’s Girls.” Doctors had to insert many pins to repair her shattered limb.
“Just like the movies, they told me I would never dance again,” she told Variety in 2005. “And just like the movies, here I am I don’t know how many performances later.”
After rigorous physical therapy Rivera not only recovered from the accident but went on to win her second Tony for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in 1993 and scored another nomination for “Nine,” opposite Antonio Banderas, a decade later.
Rivera also appeared regularly on TV entertainment shows and was in the film version of “Sweet Charity” in 1969 with Shirley MacLaine and “Chicago” in 2002.
In her mid-70s, when other dancers had slowed down or retired, she starred in “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” a stage show that combined music, dance and storytelling.
“This bona fide Broadway icon … looks as fit as a well-tuned fiddle,” Time Out magazine said in its 2005 review of the show.
A decade later, Rivera appeared in a PBS television retrospective of her career called “Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ To Do.” The same year she earned her 10th Tony nomination as a revenge-seeking millionaire in the musical “The Visit.” It was the last of several collaborations with the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Webb.
“You really never know what the next day brings you,” Rivera told the senior advocacy group AARP in a 2011 interview. “I have a very young outlook. I don’t think you know how much you can do until you try.”