12 facts about Chita Rivera, the Broadway legend known for 'West Side Story' and 'Chicago'

Chita Rivera in a red dress at the 2018 Tony Awards
Rivera accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
  • Broadway star Chita Rivera died Tuesday at age 91, her daughter announced.

  • Rivera was a dancer and performer who originated the role of Anita in "West Side Story."

  • Here's what to know about her and her decadeslong career.

Chita Rivera, a Broadway legend who originated roles in beloved musicals like "West Side Story" and "Chicago," has died. She was 91.

Rivera's daughter, Lisa Mordente, announced the news of her mother's death, saying it happened on Tuesday after a brief illness.

Trained as a ballet dancer, Rivera became one of the most-nominated performers in the history of the Tony Awards throughout a decadeslong career that started when she was 19. Here's a look back at Rivera's life and legacy.

Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson.

Chita Rivera poses with a newspaper specially printed for her birthday at Chita Rivera's 90th Birthday Celebration at Bathtub Gin on January 23, 2023 in New York City.
Rivera posing at her 90th birthday celebration in 2023.Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

Rivera was born in Washington, DC in 1933, to a Puerto Rican clarinetist father and a Scottish-Irish mother who worked as a government clerk. She was one of five children, and her father died when she was 7.

Rivera trained as a ballerina.

Chita Rivera demonstrates her dance routines for a show in New York City
Rivera was classically trained.Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The Broadway legend wrote in her memoir that her mom put her in ballet as a child, after she was jumping around at home and shattered a coffee table. She later won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, co-founded by famed choreographer George Balanchin.

Rivera left ballet school when she got a part in "Call Me Madam."

Chita Rivera in a dress and white gloves
Chita Rivera circa 1955.Pictorial Parade via Getty Images

On a lark, Rivera joined one of her friends on an audition for the national touring company of the musical "Call Me Madam," led by Elaine Stritch. She won a part as a principal dancer and hit the road, launching her professional career.

Her breakthrough role was playing Anita in "West Side Story."

Chita Rivera and other performers in "west side story"
Rivera memorably played Anita in the original Broadway run of "West Side Story."John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Rivera originated the role of Anita in "West Side Story" in 1957. It would become one of her most iconic parts.

"It was a job but became something so much bigger, in part because that musical was ripped from the headlines," Rivera told AARP in 2023.

Rivera married a "West Side Story" dancer and had a daughter with him.

American actress and singer Chita Rivera, wearing a turtleneck sweater and playing with her daughter, Lisa Mordente, in London, England, 6th February 1962.
Rivera with her daughter, Lisa.Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rivera and Tony Mordente, another dancer in the show, married in 1957. They had one child together, daughter Lisa Mordente, before divorcing in 1966.

She played Rose in "Bye Bye Birdie" opposite Dick Van Dyke, earning her first Tony nomination.

Actress Chita Rivera (L) and actor Dick Van Dyke pose backstage before performing together at The Eli And Edythe Broad Stage presentation of "Chita: A Legendary Celebration" at The Broad Stage on February 10, 2017 in Santa Monica, California.
Rivera and Van Dyke.Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Rivera originated the part of Rose in the Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie." In 1961, she was nominated for best featured actress in a musical for the role.

She also originated the role of Velma Kelly in "Chicago," which earned her another Tony nomination five years later.

She won her first Tony Award for "The Rink," which she starred in with Liza Minnelli.

Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli during Chita Rivera "A Dancer's Life" on Broadway
Rivera and Minnelli.Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

In 1984, Rivera won best actress in a musical for playing Anna in "The Rink." Minnelli played her daughter.

A car accident in 1986 almost ended her Broadway career.

Chita Rivera and daughter Lisa Mordente attend 40th Annual Tony Awards on June 1, 1986 at the Minskoff Theater in New York City.
Rivera was on crutches at the 1986 Tony Awards.Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Rivera broke her leg after the car she was driving collided with a taxi in Manhattan. She spent nearly a year in physical therapy before resuming dancing. Her first Broadway role after the accident, as the title character in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," earned Rivera her second of two competitive Tony wins.

Rivera was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002.

President George W. Bush welcomes recipients of Kennedy Center Honors of 2002 to White House (L-R) actors Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones & Chita Rivera, conductor James Levine & singer Paul Simon.
Rivera received the honor alongside other legends like Elizabeth Taylor and James Earl Jones.Mai/Getty Images

Of receiving the honor, Rivera said, "I couldn't believe it, you know? I kept saying they've made a mistake!"

Rivera also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009.

"When my mother was a child, she rolled Easter eggs on the lawn of the White House. And now, to receive The Medal of Freedom from our President, is truly a dream," she said in a statement on her award. "I am deeply honored to receive this award and to be in such distinguished company. I only wish my parents were here to share it with...but they are!"

Her final Broadway role was in 'The Visit' in 2015.

Chita Rivera during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Visit' at the Lyceum Theatre on April 23, 2015 in New York City.
Chita Rivera during the opening night curtain call for "The Visit."Walter McBride/Getty Images

Rivera starred as Claire Zachanassian, a role originally written for Angela Lansbury, in a one-act version of "The Visit." She'd first played the role 14 years earlier, in 2001, when it was staged in Chicago. She earned her 10th and final Tony nomination for the role.

Rivera received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys.

Chita Rivera in a red dress at the 2018 Tony Awards
Rivera accepting the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

In 2018, Rivera was honored with the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 72nd Tony Awards. It cemented her status as a legend and one of the most-nominated Broadway performers of all time.

She published a memoir in 2023.

Chita Rivera performs onstage during 'Great Performances: Chita Rivera' at the PBS portion of the 2015 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 2, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.
Rivera performing at the 2015 Summer TCA Tour.Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

"Chita: A Memoir," cowritten with Patrick Pacheco, was released last year.

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