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Chita Rivera Dies: Iconic Broadway Star, ‘West Side Story’s Original Anita Was 91

Chita Rivera, the beloved Broadway star of West Side Story, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, died today in New York following a brief illness. She was 91.

Her death was announced by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who said that Rivera died peacefully.

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One of America’s foremost Latina artists, Rivera was a groundbreaker, riveting critics and audiences alike with seminal performances of such soon-to-be Broadway standards as “America” and “A Boy Like That” from West Side Story and “All That Jazz” from Chicago. She was among the most nominated performers in Tony Award history – she earned 10 nominations, winning twice (for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman) and receiving the 2018 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

Rivera rocketed to fame in 1953 with Guys and Dolls, then cemented her stature as a Broadway leading lady in 1954 with Can-Can, Mr. Wonderful in 1956 and, in 1957, the role that would become both a personal signature and one of the most cherished performances in Broadway history: Anita in the original Broadway premiere of West Side Story (1957), a role she repeated in London.

Other career highlights include starring roles in Bye Bye Birdie (1960), Jerry’s Girls (1985) and the original Broadway cast of Seventh Heaven (1955). She also starred in touring productions of Born Yesterday, The Rose Tattoo, Call Me Madam, Threepenny Opera, Sweet Charity, Kiss Me Kate, Zorba, and Can-Can with The Rockettes.

Her most recent starring roles included the 2015 Broadway production of The Visit, the final John Kander/Fred Ebb/Terrence McNally musical directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele on Broadway; the Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012); the Broadway and touring productions of The Dancer’s Life (2005, 2006), a musical celebrating her career written by Terrence McNally and directed by Graciela Daniele; and the 2003 revival of the Broadway musical Nine with Antonio Banderas.

Chita Rivera in original Broadway production of ‘West Side Story’ (1957)
Chita Rivera in original Broadway production of ‘West Side Story’ (1957)

In addition to her two Tony wins, she was nominated for her performances in Bye Bye Birdie, Bring Back Birdie, Chicago, Merlin, Jerry’s Girls, Nine, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life and The Visit.

On screen, Rivera’s feature credits include Sweet Charity (1969), Chicago (2002) and tick, tick…BOOM! (2021). TV credits include The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1973-74); 1977’s HBO special Chita Plus Three; Pippin (1983, Showtime); Mayflower Madam in 1988; and, in 2005, Will & Grace. TV specials included 1983’s Broadway Plays Washington! Kennedy Center Tonight and The Road to Cordoba-National Theatre of the Deaf.

“When we filmed the diner scene in ttB (Tick, Tick..Boom!),” said director Lin-Manuel Miranda in a statement, “she wasn’t available for the shoot dates, so I left a chair empty in the diner for those three days. The whole shoot, people kept trying to move the chair or clear space and I’d have to say no, we’re GOING to get Chita, I don’t know how but we’re going to do it. 8 months later on our reshoots, she joined us and held court all day. It remains one of the all-time joys of my life. She was magnificent. She IS magnificent, not ready for the past tense just yet.”

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, DC, Rivera was the third of five children of Pedro Julio and Katherine del Rivero. She trained as a ballerina (from age nine) before receiving a scholarship to the School of American Ballet from the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Her first appearance, at age 19, was as a principal dancer in Call Me Madam.

Paula Kelly, Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera, ‘Sweet Charity’ (1969)
Paula Kelly, Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera, ‘Sweet Charity’ (1969)

Rivera was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009; she was the first Latina to receive the honor. “Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero knows that adversity comes with a difficult name,” Obama said upon presenting the medal.

Rivera headlined with her sold-out solo concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Cadogan Hall, and was honored as a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Great Performances aired the special Chita Rivera: A Lot of Livin’ To Do, a retrospective of her extraordinary life and career on PBS.

Among her many recordings were original Broadway cast albums for Mr. Wonderful, West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Bajour, Chicago, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Visit, with revival recordings of Nine and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Concert recordings include Legends of Broadway, Chita Rivera: And Now I Swing, and Chita! And Now I Sing.

She published a long-awaited, critically-acclaimed book Chita: A Memoir last year (HarperOne).

Rivera is survived by her daughter, the singer, dancer and choreographer Lisa Mordente from her 1957-66 marriage to her West Side Story co-star Tony Mordente; siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero; and many nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by sister Carmen.

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