Chita Rivera, Broadway Legend, Dead at 91

Chita Rivera, the triple-threat Broadway legend who originated roles in classic musicals like West Side Story and Chicago, died on Jan. 30 of an unspecified illness, according to a statement by her daughter, Lisa Mordente. She was 91 years old.

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero to a Puerto Rican father and an Irish Catholic mother, Rivera started dancing when she was 11 years old, eventually enrolling in George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet when she was just 15. In the 1950s, she was cast in various roles in Broadway musicals like Guys and Dolls and the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle Mr. Wonderful before she landed the role that made her a superstar: Anita, the Puerto Rican immigrant from West Side Story, who appears in such show-stopping numbers as “America” and “A Boy Like That.”

Rivera originated the role of Anita on Broadway in 1957, reprising the role when the production moved to the West End. (She was replaced by Rita Moreno in the 1960 film adaptation.) In 1960, she was cast as Rose Alvarez in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie, playing the long-suffering girlfriend of the pop songwriter played by Dick van Dyke, for which she was nominated for a Tony. (Janet Leigh went on to play the role in the adaptation of that musical.)


In 1975, Rivera originated the role of Velma Kelly, a 1920s Chicago murderess, in the musical Chicago alongside Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart. With music by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) and choreography by the legendary Bob Fosse, Chicago became one of the most beloved musicals of the 20th century. As Velma, Rivera made the opening song “All That Jazz” a staple in cabarets and piano bars across the country and was nominated for a Tony for the role. (She finally won for her leading role in The Rink, an otherwise unmemorable Kander & Ebb musical costarring Liza Minelli, in 1984, as well as another Tony Award for her role in Kander & Ebb’s 1993 musical Kiss of the Spider Woman.) Rivera made a cameo appearance as a female prisoner in the critically acclaimed 2002 adaptation of Chicago directed by Job Marshall.

Throughout the 2000s, Rivera continued to appear on the Broadway stage, performing in the 2003 Broadway revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine and the revue Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life in 2005. In 2015, she reappeared on Broadway with another Kander and Ebb musical, The Visit. In 2009, then-President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Award for Freedom for her contributions to Hollywood, Broadway, and Latinx culture. In 2018, she won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre.

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