Remembering Broadway Powerhouse Chita Rivera

We take a look at the life of Tony award-winning actress, singer, and dancer, Chita Rivera, who rose to fame as Anita in “West Side Story” and recently passed away at the age of 91. 

Not many people can do what Chita Rivera had done in a flourishing career that began in 1950. “Multi-hyphenated” is perhaps the best way to describe the great performer. Rivera could not only dance with unparalleled dynamism and power, but also act and belt out tunes in emotionally compelling performances. The actress, who passed away on January 30, 2024 at the age of 91, was the epitome of an ideal Broadway star.

Chita Rivera in 2022
Chita Rivera in 2022/Photo by Philip Romano via Wikimedia Commons

Many remember the performer for her breakthrough role as the spunky, energetic Anita in the Broadway musical West Side Story. She set the bar for one of America’s greatest contemporary productions when she first starred in it in 1957, reports Michael Coveney for The Guardian. She would then go on to star in more hit musicals throughout her long career. All the while, she won two Tony awards along with six additional nominations, according to her profile for The Kennedy Center.

Ken LeRoy, Chita Rivera, and the cast of the 1957 production of West Side Story
Ken LeRoy, Chita Rivera, and the cast of the 1957 production of West Side Story/Photo from The New York Public Library website

READ ALSO: Ruling The Stage And Screen: The Legacy Of Vivien Leigh

Rivera is survived by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who announced her mother’s passing in a statement. She stated the reason as a “brief illness,” reports Jen Juneau for People. The statement adds that Rivera’s remaining loved ones will be holding a private funeral, with a memorial service to follow.

Early Years

Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Montestuco Florentina Carnemacaral del Fuente in 1933, Washington D.C., writes Clara Tabachnick for CBS News. Her father was Puerto Rican clarinetist Pedro Figueroa del Rivero and her mother government official Katherine Anderson, according to Michael Coveney for The Guardian. Rivera was one of five siblings, all of whom she shared a close relationship with, she explained in a 2009 interview with the Associated Press (AP). 

Chita Rivera in 1974
Chita Rivera in 1974/Photo by Kenn Duncan from The New York Public Library website

Even at a young age, Rivera displayed the energy of a future dancer. She recalls jumping onto furniture during her childhood years, a habit that would convince her mother to enroll her in ballet, writes Jen Juneau of People. This turned out to be the right call, as Rivera did possess a great talent for dancing. This helped her gain a scholarship to New York’s prestigious School of American Ballet at the age of 16, adds Cara Tabachnick of CBS News.

Rivera’s father missed much of these years, as he passed away when she was just seven years old. However, upon reflecting on this during her 2009 AP interview, she discussed how her father was “very strict.” 

Sammy Davis Jr., Chita Rivera and Hal Loman in the stage production Mr. Wonderful
Sammy Davis Jr., Chita Rivera and Hal Loman in the stage production Mr. Wonderful/Photo from the New York Public Library website

“We were never quite sure whether or not I would have been allowed to go to New York at the age of 14 to continue my schooling there, to accept a scholarship to the New York City Ballet […] had he been alive. Who knows?” she shared during the interview. 

Chita and Dolores

Rivera eventually dropped out of the School of American Ballet. She opted to pursue her dream of performing on Broadway instead, reports Jen Juneau of People. Cara Tabachnick of CBS News adds that Rivera also began performing at the Palladium nightclub in Manhattan during this period. It was here where she further explored the different facets of her self-expression. 

Chita Rivera in 1976
Chita Rivera in 1976/Photo from The New York Public Library website

In 2023, the Broadway star released her memoir Chita, which she co-wrote with Patrick Pacheco. In the book, she describes her two personas, as reported by Mo Rocca for CBS Sunday Morning: Chita and Dolores. She thinks of Chita as her friendlier, lighter persona. Meanwhile, Dolores represents the darker side of herself—yet the side she credits for building her professional life. 

Chita Rivera in 1997
Chita Rivera in 1997/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“I believe that Dolores is responsible for me having a career. She’s the guts. She’s the courage,” she wrote in her memoir. Guts and courage were truly effective companions, as Rivera soon found herself on the Broadway stage as she envisioned. 

Rivera began playing chorus roles in productions like Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls, and Can-Can, writes her PBS profile. She then began playing more roles in more shows like Shoestring Revue, Seventh Heaven, and Mr. Wonderful. Afterwards, she landed the role that would skyrocket her career to unprecedented levels: Anita, the good friend of leading lady Maria, in Arthur Laurents’ hit musical West Side Story

West Side Story

West Side Story is a contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in New York and centered on the lives of rivaling street gangs. With timeless themes on multicultural love, race, and class that make up the American immigrant experience—as well as songs by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim—it’s no wonder the musical became a classic.

Chita Rivera and the Shark girls perform “America” in the 1957 production of West Side Story
Chita Rivera and the Shark girls perform “America” in the 1957 production of West Side Story/Photo from The New York Public Library website

The production already has two highly-acclaimed movie adaptations and the show itself has also been running for years now, as audiences continue to enjoy and resonate with its story to this day. 

Powerhouse Performer

It was Rivera who brought the spirit of Anita to life. Her depiction lives on in every later iteration of the character. Those who’ve had the pleasure of watching Rivera perform can’t forget the fiery kicks and spins she pulled off as she sang “I like to be in America” in her lilting Puerto Rican accent. 

Shirley MacLain, Paula Kelly, and Chita Rivera in “Sweet Charity” (1969)
Shirley MacLain, Paula Kelly, and Chita Rivera in “Sweet Charity” (1969)/Photo from IMDb

Rivera was truly a triple-threat with her prowess in singing, acting, and dancing. She continued to star in a number of memorable Broadway shows, including Bye Bye Birdie (alongside Dick Van Dyke), Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago (where she was the first to play Velma Kelly), and The Rink (with Liza Minnelli), writes her PBS profile

As one would expect, Rivera has won countless awards and accolades for her work in the performing arts. Her roles in 1984’s The Rink and 1993’s Kiss of the Spider Woman earned her two Tony awards for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, reports Euronews

Chita Rivera and former U.S. president, Barack Obama, in 2009
Chita Rivera and former U.S. president, Barack Obama, in 2009/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2002, Rivera made history as the very first Latina to receive the coveted Kennedy Center Honors for her achievements in the performing arts, reports the BBC. Then in 2009, former U.S. president Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rivera also received a Tony award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018. Beyond her many awards and accolades, however, is her trailblazing legacy. Many will remember her as a Latin-American who paved the way for artists of color in the performing arts.   

A Legacy Lives On

Social media was filled to the brim with tributes from Rivera’s former co-stars, friends, and fans. Each one spoke highly of the woman they considered to be a Broadway legend. 

“The trailblazer for [Puerto Ricans] on Broadway,” wrote fellow Puerto Rican theater visionary, Lin-Manuel Miranda in an Instagram post. “She was magnificent. She IS magnificent, not ready for the past tense just yet.”

“There are no words to tell you what an incredible impact you have had on my life. From dreaming of being you as a little girl, then meeting you and then being deeply connected to you by playing the one and only Velma Kelly in Chicago,” wrote Chicago movie star Catherine Zeta-Jones on Instagram. “There will never, ever, be anyone like you Chita, ever.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chita Rivera in the set of “Tick, Tick…Boom!”
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chita Rivera in the set of “Tick, Tick…Boom!”/Photo via Instagram @lin_manuel

“Chita Rivera is eternal. I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, who is that?’ When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride,” shared Rita Moreno, another legendary Puerto Rican actress who played Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, with Entertainment Weekly. “Over the years, we were sometimes mistaken for each other, which I always viewed as a badge of honor. She was the essence of Broadway. As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, salud!”

Banner photo and feature photo from The New York Public Library website. 

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