“It is with immense personal sorrow that I announce the death of the beloved Broadway icon Chita Rivera. My dear friend of over 40 years was 91,” her rep Merle Frimark said in a statement to People on Tuesday.
Rivera’s death was also confirmed by her daughter Lisa Mordente, who said the late actress died “after a brief illness.”
Rivera originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story on Broadway, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, just to name a few. Her decades-spanning work earned her three Tony Awards: two for Best Lead Actress in a Musical (for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman) and one for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre. She was also the first Hispanic woman and first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and in 2009 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
In a statement, EGOT winner, West Side Story star, and Broadway icon Rita Moreno told The Daily Beast: “Chita Rivera is eternal. I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, ‘Oh my god, who is that?’ When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride. Over the years, we were sometimes mistaken for each other which I always viewed as a badge of honor. She was the essence of Broadway. As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, Salud!”
Bernadette Peters, another Broadway icon and Tony winner, said in a statement: “She was an amazing talent and vibrant, fun person. She was a great star up till the very end. She did it all so very well.”
Victoria Clark, who won the 2023 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical (for Kimberly Akimbo), told The Daily Beast: “Although I never had the pleasure of working with Chita, she was the artist we all looked up to our whole lives—an immortal. She will live on forever in my heart.”
Born to a Scottish mother and a Puerto Rican father in 1933 in Washington, D.C., Rivera began training as a ballerina at age 9 before receiving a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York. She soon became one of Broadway’s most prestigious triple-threats, with early roles in Guys and Dolls in 1953 and Can-Can in 1954. But it was with 1957’s West Side Story that Rivera had her breakout moment, playing the role of Anita in the wildly popular production.
She went on to star in productions of Born Yesterday, The Rose Tattoo, Kiss Me Kate, and Sweet Charity, among many more. In 1984, she starred in the musical The Rink alongside Liza Minnelli; for her role as Anna, she earned her first Tony Award.
Even in the past decade, Rivera continued wowing audiences on Broadway. In 2015, at age 82, she starred in a musical adaptation of The Visit, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s satirical play. Asked at the time whether she’d considered retiring, she told BroadwayDirect.com, “Gosh, no.”
“That’s up to God,” she continued. “But in the meantime, life is fabulous and I’m lucky enough to have lived a long time while surrounded by the greatest creative people. I have too much to dance and sing about yet, and too many people to entertain.”
Along with her dazzling stage work, Rivera also appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, including adaptations of Chicago and Sweet Charity. Her most recent screen credit was in the 2021 Netflix film Tick, Tick... Boom!, in which she appeared in a sequence featuring several other Broadway legends.
Rivera is survived by her daughter Lisa (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 her many nieces and nephews.