Chita Rivera, Revered And Pioneering Broadway Legend, Dies Aged 91

The 10-time Tony nominee was a true icon of the theatre world.
Chita Rivera pictured in 2018
Chita Rivera pictured in 2018
via Associated Press

Chita Rivera, the dynamic dancer, singer and actor who garnered 10 Tony nominations, winning twice, in a long Broadway career that forged a path for Latina artists and shrugged off a near-fatal car accident, has died at the age of 91.

The much-loved performer’s death was announced on Tuesday by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who said she died in New York after a brief illness.

In 1957, Chita first gained widespread attention when she originated the role of Anita in the inaugural production of West Side Story and was still dancing on Broadway with her trademark energy a half-century later in 2015’s The Visit.

“I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t moving or telling a story to you or singing a song,” she told The Associated Press then.

“That’s the spirit of my life, and I’m really so lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life.”

In August 2009, Chita was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour the US can give a civilian. Chita put her hand over her heart and said she shook her head in wonderment as President Barack Obama presented the medal. In 2013, she was the marshal at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.

Chita Rivera and Barack Obama in 2009
Chita Rivera and Barack Obama in 2009
JEWEL SAMAD via Getty Images

Chita rose from chorus girl to star, collaborating along the way with many of Broadway’s greatest talents, including Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, Harold Prince, Jack Cole, Peter Gennaro and John Kander and Fred Ebb.

She rebounded from a car accident in 1988 that crushed her right leg and became an indefatigable star on the road. She was on Broadway in a raucous production of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in 2012 and the chilly The Visit in 2014, earning another Tony nomination for Best Actress.

She won Tonys for The Rink in 1984 and Kiss Of The Spider Woman in 1993. When accepting a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018, she said: “I wouldn’t trade my life in the theatre for anything, because theatre is life.”

She was nominated for the prestigious award seven more times, for Bye Bye Birdie, which opened in 1960, Chicago in 1975, Bring Back Birdie in 1981, Merlin in 1983, Jerry’s Girls in 1985, Nine in 2003 and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life in 2005.

Chita and her West Side Story co-stars rehearsing in 1957
Chita and her West Side Story co-stars rehearsing in 1957
via Associated Press

“I don’t think we have enough original musicals,” she told The Associated Press in 2012. “I know I’m being old-fashioned, but the theatre is the place where music, lyrics, words, scenery and stories come together. And I’ve been blessed enough to have done several shows when they really did. They take you places and they’re daring. That’s what we need.”

Her albums include 16 tracks pulled from her original cast recordings and put out as part of Sony’s Legends of Broadway series and two solo CDs – And Now I Sing for a tiny record label in the 1960s and And Now I Swing in 2009 for Yellow Sound Label.

In the 1993 musical Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Chita played the title role, a glamorous movie star at the centre of the fantasy life of an inmate in a South American prison. The story, from a novel by Manuel Puig, had already been made into an Oscar-winning 1985 movie.

In 1975, she originated the role of Velma Kelly (to Gwen Verdon’s Roxie Hart) in the original Broadway production of Chicago. Chita also had a small role in the 2002 film version, while Catherine Zeta-Jones won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Velma — just as Rita Moreno had picked up an Oscar for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story.

The songwriters for Chicago, Kander and Ebb, also wrote Rivera’s first Tony-winning performance, for The Rink. In winning the Tony for best actress in a musical, Rivera topped the show’s top star, Liza Minnelli, who also had been nominated. The two played a mother and daughter who struggle to rebuild their relationship after a long estrangement; the setting is an old-fashioned roller rink that has seen better days.

Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera backstage at the 1984 Tony Awards
Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera backstage at the 1984 Tony Awards
Ron Galella via Getty Images

Spider Woman had been her first Broadway show since 1986, when she suffered a broken leg in the traffic accident while she was appearing in “Jerry’s Girls,” a Broadway tribute to the songs of Jerry Herman.

At the Tony awards a few weeks later, she showed off her cast and belted out Put On A Happy Face from the musical Bye, Bye, Birdie.

It took months of physical therapy to bring back her dancing skills. She told The Associated Press: “It never entered my mind that I wouldn’t dance again. Never. I can’t explain to you why. It’s hard work getting back but that’s what I’m doing.”

“My spirit is still there.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Broadway songwriter and performer, featured Chita in a scene in his 2021 film adaptation of Tick, Tick... Boom, and in a statement said having her included “remains one of the all-time joys of my life”.

Chita married fellow West Side Story performer Tony Mordente in 1957. The marriage ended in divorce.

Their daughter, Lisa Mordente, also became a performer who occasionally appeared on Broadway, garnering a Tony nomination in 1982 for Marlowe.


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