Tribute to Chita Rivera

Julia Rank
Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Remembering the electrifying Musical Theatre star who created the role of Anita in West Side Story on Broadway

Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

The death of Chita Rivera at the age of 91 has saddened the Musical Theatre world. Renowned for her electrifying stage presence, prodigious dance ability and a wicked sense of humour, Rivera was a true Broadway legend.

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson in Washington DC in 1933, Rivera began her training at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. At 15, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet in New York City and received a scholarship.

In 1951, Rivera made her debut in the touring production of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, starring Elaine Stritch. This was followed by Broadway appearances in Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Mr Wonderful (starring Sammy Davis Jr) and Seventh Heaven.  

Rivera became a star when she created the iconic role of Anita in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story in 1957. The girlfriend of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, and maternal figure to his sister Maria, Anita is an outspoken, witty and independent Latinx woman who gets all the best lines. Rivera sang and danced up a storm in ‘America’ and also had some of the most emotive music performing ‘A Boy Like That/I Have a Love’ with Carol Lawrence’s Maria.

The West End transfer was postponed until after the birth of Rivera’s ‘Shark-Jet’ daughter, Lisa (she married fellow cast member Tony Mordente, who played A-Rab, a member of the Jets). Her performance was rapturously received; The Stage reported that she ‘burst upon London like a firecracker.’

Rivera followed up her West Side Story success with Bye Bye Birdie, in which she showcased her flair for comedy in the role of Rosie, the secretary and partner of Dick Van Dyke’s songwriter Albert. She was subsequently nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress. A sequel Bring Back Birdie in 1981 was a famous flop.

Her roles in West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie were portrayed by Rita Moreno and Janet Leigh respectively on screen. However, in 1969 Rivera played the supporting role of Nickie in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity opposite Shirley MacLaine (Rivera had previously played the title role on tour). She was also a regular on variety shows, including The Judy Garland Show in 1963.

Rivera and her great friend Gwen Verdon joined forces in 1975 in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Bob Fosse. Rivera introduced the song ‘All That Jazz’ as the sultry murderess Velma Kelly, whose cheating husband ‘had it coming’. She later played Roxie Hart in the 1990s revival, and had a cameo in the 2002 film version.

In 1984, Rivera starred in Kander and Ebb’s The Rink as Anna, an Italian American single mother and owner of a failing roller skating rink in a New Jersey seaside town. She won her first Tony and Drama Desk Awards for the role. Liza Minnelli played her estranged daughter Angel. She was Tony-nominated again the following year for the Jerry Herman revue Jerry’s Girls.

Continuing her association with Kander and Ebb, Rivera won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for her dual performances as Aurora and Spider Woman in 1993’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman. In 2001, she created the role of Claire Zachanassian in Kander and Ebb’s The Visit in Chicago; she reprised the role several times before it was finally presented on Broadway in 2015.

Her autobiographical show Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life was first performed in 2005 and toured extensively. She appeared at London’s Cadogan Hall in 2019.  

Among her many awards and achievements, Rivera received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009; the Astaire Awards were renamed the Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography in 2017; and in 2018 she received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Musicals magazine’s Edward Seckerson recalls meeting this amazing lady (and her little dog) in the basement theatre of New York’s West Bank Cafe to record a special for his BBC radio show Stage & Screen: ‘She was as charming as she was fiery, regaling us with stories of the West Side Story auditions and her long and fruitful relationship with Kander and Ebb. I told her I’d seen Kiss of the Spiderwoman five times and I’ll never her forget her response: “Wasn’t Brent Carver amazing!” Yes, Chita, he was, but so were you. In everything.’

Chita Rivera: born 23 January 1933; died 30 January 2024