Chita Rivera, Broadway Legend, Dead At 91

Chita Rivera, known for originating iconic Broadway roles including Anita in "West Side Story" in 1957 and Velma Kelly in "Chicago" in 1975, has died at the age of 91, as reported by The New York Times. Her death was announced in a statement from her daughter Lisa Mordente; it came after a short, and as yet undisclosed, illness. She's survived by three siblings and her daughter.

Rivera was an outstanding dancer, singer, and actor, and her career in the theater spanned decades. She was nominated for 10 Tony awards, and she won for best actress in a musical twice. In 2018, she received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, and she revealed then how much the award and her time on stage meant to her. "I would not trade my life in the theatre for anything as the theatre IS life," she said, per the Tony Awards.

Chita Rivera started dancing at age 11

Chita Rivera was born on January 23, 1933 in Washington D.C. with the name Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. Her mother was Scottish American while her father, who died when she was seven, was Puerto Rican. She was one of five children, and her career dreams as a young girl reflected her Catholic upbringing. In her 2023 book "Chita: A Memoir," she wrote (via The Guardian), "I was quite comfortable looking forward to being a nun ... But then I went and fell through the coffee table and my mother put me in ballet school." The goal was to give Rivera a way to channel her energy, and it worked.

Just five years later, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet, and she got in with a scholarship from George Balanchine, renowned choreographer. She got her first major role at 17, dancing principal in the show "Call Me Madam" with Elaine Stritch. She would go on to dance in more shows, including "Can-Can," "Guys & Dolls," and "Shoestring Revue." It was during her time dancing with "Shoestring Revue" that she changed her professional name from Conchita Del Rivero to Chita Rivera.

Even though Rivera changed her name, "Dolores" still stayed with her as a fiery alter ego. As she explained to AARP, "Chita got along with everybody. She was the performer, the people pleaser. Not Dolores. She'd tell it like it was, like Anita."

Chita Rivera lit up the stage for decades

Anita is, of course, a reference to Chita Rivera's breakout role in "West Side Story" on Broadway in 1957. That production found her working with others who would go on to be legends in the theater world, including lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein. That was the same year she married "West Side Story" dancer Tony Mordente. She had her daughter Lisa Mordente in July 1958 before she played Anita again on London's West End in December 1958. Tony and Rivera divorced in 1966.

Rivera's Broadway star power solidified after "West Side Story." Notable parts included playing Rose opposite Dick Van Dyke in "Bye, Bye, Birdie" in 1960, Velma Kelly in "Chicago" in 1975, and Anna opposite Liza Minelli in "The Rink" in 1984 — for which Rivera won her first Tony. Her second Tony was for playing Aurora in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1993 at age 60. She received her tenth Tony nomination for her final Broadway role in 2015 for "The Visit." In 2002, Rivera became the first Hispanic American woman to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Then in 2009, Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Composer John Kander, who wrote Rivera's parts in both of her Tony-winning roles, raved about her talent to The New York Times. "When you hear Chita, you see Chita," he said. "When you work with somebody like that, their range is so enormous that there's nothing you can't write." She'll certainly be missed.