Chita Rivera, Electrifying Broadway Star, Is Dead at 91

Chita Rivera, Electrifying Broadway Star, Is Dead at 91


Chita Rivera, the fire-and-ice dancer, singer and actress who leapt to stardom in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” and dazzled audiences for nearly seven decades as a Puerto Rican lodestar of the American musical theater, died on Tuesday in New York. She was 91.

The death was announced in a statement by her daughter, Lisa Mordente. It gave no other details.

To generations of musical aficionados, Ms. Rivera was a whirling, bounding, high-kicking elemental force of the dance; a seductive singer of smoky ballads and sizzling jazz; and a propulsive actress of vaudevillian energy. She appeared in scores of stage productions in New York and London, logged 100,000 miles on cabaret tours and performed in dozens of films and television programs.

On Broadway, she created a string of memorably hard-edged women — Anita in “West Side Story” (1957), Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), the murderous floozy Velma Kelly in “Chicago” (1975) and the title role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993). She sang enduring numbers in those roles: “America” in “West Side Story,” “One Boy” and “Spanish Rose” in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “All That Jazz” in “Chicago.”

Critics thumbed thesauruses for hyperboles to rhapsodize about her pyrotechnics. In 2005, Newsweek called her “only the greatest musical-theater dancer ever.” Reviewing her performance in “Bye Bye Birdie” in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called her “a flammable singer and gyroscopic dancer.” Of her Tony Award-winning romp as Anna in “The Rink” (1984), Richard Corliss in Time magazine wrote: “Packing 30 years of Broadway savvy into the frame of a vivacious teenager, the 51-year-old entertainer could by now sell a song to the deaf.”

Ms. Rivera was a hard-working perfectionist who rarely missed a beat, let alone a performance. Trained in classical ballet before joining the musical stage, she was beloved on Broadway, where she began performing in the early 1950s. With her showstopping voice and eloquent body language, she radiated a charisma rooted in solid song and dance techniques and in the pleasures she derived from them.

As a singer and actress, Ms. Rivera was largely self-taught, though she received an on-the-job education from some of the foremost pedagogues in the pantheon: the choreographers Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, the composer Leonard Bernstein, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the playwright Terrence McNally.

In 1986, Ms. Rivera had to suspend her dancing life when a taxi collided with her car in Manhattan, shattering her left leg in a dozen places. She underwent two surgeries, with screws and plates used to reconnect her bones, followed by months of rehabilitation. For many dancers, the injuries might have been career-ending, but almost a year after the accident she began dancing again, easing her way back with cabaret acts that sustained her for years.

She never fully recovered. “You’ll never see me in ballet slippers again because I don’t have my Achilles’ tendon,” she told The Times in 1993, when she returned to Broadway after a seven-year absence to star in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” She added: “I can’t do the full stretch. But I don’t have any pain anymore. The only problem is that my leg sets off metal detectors at airports.”

In “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life,” an autobiographical retrospective presented on Broadway in 2005, she delivered a tango about the men in her past, a dance sequence for Mr. Fosse, Mr. Robbins and other choreographers, and a medley of her musical highlights, including “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story” and “All That Jazz” from “Chicago.”

“At 72, she still has the voice, the attitude and — oh, yes — the legs to magnetize all eyes in an audience,” Ben Brantley wrote in a review for The Times. “She is a pro’s pro in a world of exacting judgments and mythic standards. It feels right that ‘The Dancer’s Life’ should present her as the ultimate gypsy made good, the talented trouper who got the right breaks.”

A decade later, Ms. Rivera was still a headliner, starring in a 2015 musical adaptation of “The Visit,” the Kander-Ebb-McNally musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s satirical play about greed and revenge. In it she played a wealthy widow who returns to her depressed hometown with an offer of money for the murder of an old flame who betrayed her long ago.

The production ran on Broadway for 11 weeks, including previews, grossed $2 million and received five Tony nominations. The Times reported that “the opening night audience was on its feet, its applause so boisterous and sustained that Ms. Rivera had to wave it down with a magisterial sweep of her hand.”

Ms. Rivera was showered with honors during her long career. She won two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical, for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”; was nominated for eight others; and in 2018 received a special Tony for lifetime achievement. In 2002, she became the first Hispanic American woman to receive Kennedy Center Honors, the capital’s version of the Oscars, in a group that included Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones and Paul Simon.

In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony.

It was the culmination of an odyssey that began a few miles away in Washington on Jan. 23, 1933, with the birth of Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, the third of five children of Pedro Julio and Katherine (Anderson) del Rivero.

Her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, played the clarinet and saxophone with the U.S. Navy Band and the Harry James Orchestra. He died when Conchita was 7. Her mother, who was of Scottish, Irish and Puerto Rican descent and also had African American ancestors, which she discovered late in life, became a clerk at the Pentagon and enrolled Conchita in singing, dance and piano lessons. Dancing became her passion. On the advice of her teacher, she auditioned for George Balanchine and won a scholarship to his School of American Ballet in New York City.

Living with an uncle’s family in the Bronx, she graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1951. At an open call for dancers, she won a part with a national touring company of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” After 10 months on the road, she replaced Onna White as a principal dancer in “Guys and Dolls” in New York. Over the next few years, she danced in “Seventh Heaven,” “Shoestring Revue” and “Mr. Wonderful.” Her career moved up. She shortened her name to a catchy Chita Rivera.

In 1953, she landed a Broadway gig as a chorus dancer in “Can-Can,” the Cole Porter-Abe Burrows musical starring Gwen Verdon, who encouraged Ms. Rivera to shoot for the marquee. She won a part in “Mr. Wonderful” and had a romantic fling with its star, Sammy Davis Jr.

Ms. Rivera shot to stardom in 1957 as Anita in “West Side Story,” the Romeo-and-Juliet tale set in postwar Manhattan, where star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony, are caught in a deadly war of street gangs. As Anita, she sang a poignant duet with Carol Lawrence as Maria, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” and a magical “Tonight,” as well as leading a rousing ensemble in “America.”

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Mr. Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents, the musical won ecstatic reviews and ran for 732 performances before going on tour, and it had an even longer run in London.

In 1957, Ms. Rivera married Anthony Mordente, a dancer in “West Side Story.” They divorced in 1966. In addition to her daughter, Lisa, she is survived by two brothers, Julio and Armando; and a sister, Lola del Rivero. Ms. Rivera lived in Rockland County, N.Y.

Other triumphs followed, starting with the original production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” in 1960, a musical comedy that revolved around a hip-thrusting character based on Elvis Presley. It spoofed a fading era of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, the culture of celebrity, the power of television on small-town America, and show business in general. It featured Ms. Rivera as a songwriter’s secretary who turns the loss of her agency’s meal ticket, the rock star Conrad Birdie, who is being drafted into the Army, into a coup by organizing a national farewell-kiss contest for swooning fans. Ms. Rivera, nominated for her first Tony, was hailed in The Guardian: “So magnetic is her personality that we tend to forget the plot and wait only for Miss Rivera to take the center of the stage.”

She scored another Tony nomination in 1976 for the original Broadway production of “Chicago,” the wryly cynical musical about vice in the 1920s. Ms. Rivera played Velma Kelly to Ms. Verdon’s Roxie Hart — rival murderesses in the Cook County Jail competing for lurid publicity and the services of the never-lose, give-’em-the-old-razzmatazz lawyer Billy Flynn, played by Jerry Orbach. It ran for 936 performances.

Ms. Rivera’s Broadway career rarely slackened, and when she found time, she filled it with international cabaret work and appeared in films and on television dramas and comedies and on the variety shows of Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Garry Moore, Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett.

Her films included a half-dozen documentaries about Broadway and its stars. She also made a cameo appearance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 feature, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” a biographical musical drama based on Jonathan Larson’s stage musical of the same name.

In 2017, the Astaire Awards, named for Fred and Adele Astaire, who appeared in 10 Broadway musicals between 1917 and 1931, were renamed the Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography.

In 2015, Broadway marveled when Ms. Rivera, at 82, opened in “The Visit.”

Hadn’t she considered retiring?

“Gosh, no,” she told BroadwayDirect.com. “That’s up to God. 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.”

Her long-awaited autobiography, “Chita: A Memoir,” written with the journalist Patrick Pacheco, was published in the spring of 2023. It traced her life “with a veteran’s clarity and insouciance,” and disclosed two distinct sides of Ms. Rivera’s personality, Juan A. Ramirez wrote in The Times.

Whereas Chita is the sweet one “who tries to bring everything together, solve problems and likes to laugh,” Ms. Rivera wrote, her “inner renegade,” called Dolores, “doesn’t hold back, and gets her jobs. She was the one that protected me.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.



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