An actress, singer and dancer who rose to fame on Broadway in the ’50s and originated the role of Anita in West Side Story, Chita Rivera has been known as one of the most legendary entertainers around for over half a century. Following her passing on January 30 at age 91, we’re taking a look back at the achievements that made her so special, from performing alongside Dick Van Dyke, Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli (to name just a few) to blazing trails for Latinas in the entertainment industry.
Chita Rivera’s early life
Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in 1933, Chita Rivera discovered her passion for song and dance early, and won a scholarship to New York City’s prestigious School of American Ballet as a teen. After graduating from high school in 1951, she began auditioning for plays and was cast in productions like Call Me Madam, Guys and Dolls and Mr. Wonderful.
In an interview, Rivera said her time dancing as a chorus girl before she hit it big was essential to her education as a young performer. As she described it, “There is something so constructive about being in the chorus. It makes you aware of other people and the entire picture of the stage: the front, the middle, the back, the sides. The audience is looking at every single position, and in the chorus you know that. You can’t hide.”
Chita Rivera the Broadway icon
In 1957, Rivera had her breakout role when she played Anita in the original Broadway production of West Side Story. With its ’50s take on the classic Romeo and Juliet story and unforgettable songs, the show became one of the most beloved musicals of all time. As Anita, Rivera sang songs like “Tonight,” “America” and “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” and showed off her captivating dance moves. West Side Story was pivotal in Rivera’s professional and personal life, as she met her husband, fellow performer Tony Mordente, in the show’s cast. They would be married from 1957 to 1966 and have a daughter.
Three years later, in 1960, Rivera starred in another iconic musical, originating the role of Rose in Bye Bye Birdie. The play gave Rivera an opportunity to flex her comedy skills opposite none other than Dick Van Dyke. Surprisingly, Rivera had doubts about the play early on. As she told Theatermania in 2019, “Bye Bye Birdie I thought on paper was the worst thing you could ever imagine,” but as she got more familiar with the play, she “totally fell in love with the innocence of it, the naïveté.”
By the ’70s, Rivera was a Broadway veteran, and in 1975 she originated yet another immortal musical role, playing the sassy ’20s-era murderess Velma Kelly in Chicago. The show put her seductive dance moves on full display, and she sang powerhouse anthems like “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango.”
In 1983, Rivera played the Queen in Merlin (who else could’ve pulled off this regal role?) and the next year she played Liza Minnelli’s mother in The Rink. The musical wasn’t her biggest hit, but it earned her her first Tony award.
She then appeared in the musical revue Jerry’s Girls and won her second Tony for her role as the vampy title character in the 1993 musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. The show provided Rivera a major comeback, as she was already in her 60s and had spent the late ’80s recuperating from a car accident.
In 2003, Rivera played Liliane La Fleur, a film producer and former dancer working with the director Guido Contini (the always suave Antonio Banderas) in the revival of Nine.
Rivera was such a legend that in 2005 she starred in Chita Rivera: A Dancer’s Life, a biographical show about her life and work. Her final Broadway role came in 2015, when she played the wildly wealthy protagonist in The Visit.
Chita Rivera’s many accomplishments
Outside of her Broadway appearances, Rivera appeared in TV shows like The Outer Limits, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and Will & Grace. She also co-starred with Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film adaptation of the splashy musical Sweet Charity.
During her long career, Rivera was nominated for a record-breaking 10 Tony awards, and she received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Rivera was the ultimate triple threat, acting, dancing and singing with style, and she rose to prominence at a time when not many Latinas were given the opportunity to do so, helping to inspire many a diverse performer in her wake.
At 91, Rivera was considered a living legend, and while she’s no longer with us, her legacy will live on in her indelible performances in West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago, and the dance moves of countless performers who look up to her.
In a 2023 interview, Rivera offered advice to younger actors and dancers, saying, “You get so much by being humble. And I don’t care how old you are, you should be constantly learning from the smallest names to the biggest. Every moment could be the one when you drop dead, and every day is the first day of the rest of your life.”
The combination of this positive energy and her extraordinary talents and work ethic made Rivera one of Broadway’s brightest stars, and we’ll always be in awe of her fabulous body of work.
Read on for more about classic performers: