Chita Rivera, Revered Broadway Legend and Pioneer, Dies At 91

Chita Rivera, the dynamic dancer, singer and actor who earned 10 Tony nominations, winning twice, in a long Broadway career that paved the way for Latina artists and overlooked a near-fatal car accident, has died at age 91.

The much-loved artist’s death was announced Tuesday by his daughter, Lisa Mordente, who said he died in New York after a brief illness.

In 1957, Chita first gained widespread attention when she played Anita in the premiere production of West Side Story and is still dancing on Broadway with her signature energy half a century later in 2015’s The Visit.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t move or tell you a story or sing a song,” he told The Associated Press at the time.

“That’s my passion in life, and I’m so lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life.”

In August 2009, Chita was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the US can bestow on a civilian. Chita placed her hand over her heart and said she shook her head in amazement as President Barack Obama presented her with the medal. In 2013, he was a marshal at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.

Chita Rivera and Barack Obama in 2009Chita Rivera and Barack Obama in 2009

SAMAD GEMS via Getty Images

Chita rose from chorus girl to star, collaborating with many of Broadway’s greatest talents, including Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Kidd, Harold Prince, Jack Cole, Peter Gennaro and John Kander and Fred Ebb.

He recovered from a car accident in 1988 that crushed his right leg and became a tireless street star. She was on Broadway in raucous productions of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in 2012 and the chilling The Visit in 2014, earning another Tony nomination for Best Actress.

He won Tonys for The Rink in 1984 and Kiss Of The Spider Woman in 1993. While accepting the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018, he said: “I wouldn’t trade my life in the theater for anything, because theater is life . ”

He was nominated for the prestigious award seven more times, for Bye Bye Birdie, which opened in 1960, Chicago in 1975, Bring Back Birdie in 1981, Merlin in 1983, Jerry’s Girls in 1985, Nine in 2003 and Chita Rivera : A Dancer’s Life in 2005.

Chita and her West Side Story co-stars rehearse in 1957Chita and her West Side Story co-stars rehearse in 1957

“I don’t think we have enough original musicals,” he told The Associated Press in 2012. “I know I’m old-fashioned, but theater is a place where music, lyrics, words, scenery and story come together. . And I was blessed enough to do some shows when they actually did. They take you places and they are brave. That’s what we need.”

The album includes 16 songs taken from the original cast recordings and issued as part of Sony’s Legends of Broadway series and two solo CDs – And Now I Sing for a small record label in the 1960s and And Now I Swing in 2009 for the Yellow Sound Label.

In the 1993 musical Kiss Of The Spider Woman, Chita played the title role, a glamorous movie star at the center of an inmate’s fantasy life in a South American prison. This story, taken from the novel by Manuel Puig, was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1985.

In 1975, she originated the role of Velma Kelly (to Gwen Verdon’s Roxie Hart) in the original Broadway production of Chicago. Chita also had a small role in the 2002 film version, while Catherine Zeta-Jones won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Velma — just as Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her role as Anita in West Side Story.

Songwriters for Chicago, Kander and Ebb, also wrote Rivera’s first Tony-winning performance, for The Rink. In winning the Tony for best actress in a musical, Rivera edged out the show’s top star, Liza Minnelli, who was also nominated. The two play a mother and daughter struggling to rebuild their relationship after a long separation; the setting is an old roller rink that has seen better days.

Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera backstage at the 1984 Tony AwardsLiza Minnelli and Chita Rivera backstage at the 1984 Tony Awards

Ron Galella via Getty Images

Spider Woman has been her first Broadway show since 1986, when she broke her leg in a traffic accident while performing in “Jerry’s Girls,” a Broadway tribute to the songs of Jerry Herman.

At the Tony awards a few weeks later, he showed off his cast and sang Put On A Happy Face from the musical Bye, Bye, Birdie.

It took months of physical therapy to get her dancing skills back. She told The Associated Press: “It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t dance again. Never. I can’t explain why to you. It took a lot of hard work to get back, but that’s what I did.”

“My spirit is still there.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, songwriter and Broadway performer, featured Chita in a scene in his 2021 film adaptation of Tick, Tick… Boom, and in a statement said casting her “remains one of the all-time joys of my life. ”.

Chita married fellow West Side Story actor Tony Mordente in 1957. The marriage ended in divorce.

Their daughter, Lisa Mordente, also became an occasional performer on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination in 1982 for Marlowe.

Leave a comment