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Chita Rivera, Showstopping Legend of Broadway Musicals, Dies at 91

Chita Rivera, the sultry singer, dancer and actress who commanded the Broadway stage for more than a half-century, has died. She was 91.

Rivera died Tuesday in New York following a brief illness, her daughter, Lisa Mordente, announced in a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter.

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Known for her long, sleek legs, smoldering green eyes and lusty singing voice, the two-time Tony Award winner originated some of musical theater’s most iconic characters.

When West Side Story bowed in 1957, it was Rivera singing about life in America as the fiery Puerto Rican transplant Anita. As Rose Grant, the long-suffering girlfriend of songwriter Albert Peterson, Rivera received top billing over Dick Van Dyke in 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie. In 1975, she made the stage sizzle with “All That Jazz” as Velma Kelly in Chicago. And the 1993 musical adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman put her in the spotlight as the sexy Spider Woman.

While she was in West Side Story, the incredibly limber Rivera noticed that she had developed a welt on her forehead, not realizing at first that she had been inadvertently kicking herself during a leaping move, she told Playbill in 2007. In fact, Rivera could touch the back of her head with her foot going forward.

“When she let those limbs loose she was a one-woman showstopper, and every choreographer wanted her,” West Side Story producer Harold Prince said. “There is nobody who can dance, sing and act like Chita Rivera.”

Ariana DeBose remembered Rivera on social media, writing, “She was a force. In truth she made me nervous. To be in her presence was to behold greatness. I always got the sense that she had great expectations, but none greater than the ones she held herself to…I am heartbroken and yet ever inspired as she showed so many of us what was possible. Rest well Queen.”

Chita Rivera as Anita in WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway, 1957
Chita Rivera as Anita in ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway in 1957.

Rivera also was in the original Broadway productions of Guys and Dolls in 1950, Can-Can in 1953, Seventh Heaven in 1955, Mr. Wonderful in 1956, Shinbone Alley in 1957, the sequel Bring Back Birdie in 1981, Merlin in 1983, Jerry’s Girls in 1985 and The Visit in 2015.

In 2005, she partnered with frequent collaborator Terrence McNally for the revue Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life. And she added class to a 2003 revival of Nine and a 2012 revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Rivera received 10 Tony nominations, the most of any musical performer. She won twice, both for Kander & Ebb productions — in 1984 for The Rink and in 1993 for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

She recalled her first victory in a 2015 interview with TheaterMania.com. “My mother had just passed,” she said. “I had a black dress on, and when they announced my name, I remember my mother standing up inside of me. She was taller, so I felt as though I kept going as I stood up. I know my mother was there, so it was a very moving thing for me.”

Though it seemed as if she was always performing on a stage somewhere, Rivera did find time for films and television. Her notable feature work included roles in Sweet Charity (1969), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), Kalamazoo? (2006) and Still Waiting in the Wings (2017). Though Catherine Zeta-Jones played Velma in the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago, Rivera made an appearance as the character Nickie.

On TV, Rivera played Mrs. Dame opposite Martin Landau and Sally Kellerman on a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits titled “The Bellero Shield” and had a recurring role as the neighbor Connie Richardson (married to Richard Dawson‘s character) in 1973 on The New Dick Van Dyke Show.

In 2002, Rivera was the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor and seven years later was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Sitting alongside fellow recipients Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Desmond Tutu, “I thought, ‘How could I possibly be sitting with all these people I’m humbled by?’ It was extraordinary.”

Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 23, 1933. Her father, Pedro, a Puerto Rican sax player, died of cancer when she was 7. Her Irish mother, Katherine Anderson del Rivero, raised her.

Rivera’s brother, Julio, remembered that even at a young age, his sister would seize any opportunity to perform. “Chita always had that special quality of attracting attention,” he told AARP Viva. “She didn’t know it, but the solo spotlight was always on her, even when she appeared in the doorway.”

Rivera was also known to roughhouse and could be a bit of a tomboy. She joked during her TheaterMania interview that her mother needed to find some way to vent all that energy. “Bicycles, skates, walking the back fences, climbing the trees … I just broke up all the furniture in the house,” she said. “My mother had to get rid of me. So she put me in dance class.”

At 14, Rivera landed a scholarship to The School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine, in Manhattan, and studied there for three years. While still a teenager, she auditioned for choreographer Jerome Robbins, who hired her as a principal dancer in the 1952 road company of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam.

Figuring that Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was too much for any marquee, she shortened her name to Conchita del Rivero. Three years later, she tightened it even more. “Chita Rivero doesn’t sound as good as Chita Rivera,” she said.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Rivera delighted viewers on such programs as Caesar’s Hour, The Dinah Shore Chevy Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show and The Hollywood Palace. Later, she appeared on Kojak, One Life to Live and Will & Grace and voiced a character on Dora the Explorer.

Rivera was married from 1957-66 to Tony Mordente, an actor who became a TV director and producer. Their daughter received a best actress Tony nom in 1982 for the musical Marlowe.

Survivors also include her siblings, Julio, Armando and Lola.

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