Broadway Icon Chita Rivera, Two-Time Tony Winner and Latina Trailblazer, Dies at 91

NYC – Chita Rivera, the iconic Broadway actress known for her captivating performances in musicals such as “West Side Story,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” passed away on January 30 in New York. She was 91 years old. The news of her death was announced by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who did not provide a specific cause.

Rivera was a vivacious and talented performer who left an indelible mark on the Broadway stage for over six decades. With her mesmerizing presence, stunning vocals, and extraordinary dance skills, she became synonymous with vitality and longevity in the world of musical theater. Whether she was performing in grand New York productions, regional theater, national tours, or her own nightclub act, Rivera was always a box-office draw.

Throughout her career, Rivera demonstrated incredible versatility, seamlessly transitioning from the raw energy of Bob Fosse’s choreography to the graceful elegance of Jerome Robbins’ ballets. Her unparalleled talent captivated audiences and received high praise from critics. Composer John Kander once remarked that there were no performers like her, dispelling the notion that Rivera was the last of her kind.

Even as she aged, Rivera’s stamina remained unparalleled. At the age of 70, she performed a sultry tango with Antonio Banderas in the Broadway revival of “Nine,” showcasing her enduring talent and agility. She was known for her lightning-fast legs and acrobatics, although she adjusted her repertoire as she grew older. Yet, she maintained an inexhaustible career, captivating audiences with her boundless energy and charisma.

Rivera’s love for dance and performance was evident from a young age. She was raised in Washington by her widowed mother, who enrolled her in ballet classes to curtail her habit of breaking furniture while leaping around the house. However, she eventually realized that ballet was not her true calling and ventured into musical theater.

Rivera’s breakthrough came when she auditioned for the touring production of “Call Me Madam” in 1952. This led to a string of Broadway productions, including “West Side Story,” where she originated the role of Anita. Her performance in “West Side Story,” particularly in the show-stopping number “America,” earned her critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base.

Throughout her career, Rivera originated roles in several other successful Broadway productions, such as “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and “The Rink.” She collaborated with esteemed composers and playwrights, including John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally, earning numerous Tony nominations and awards along the way.

Despite experiencing both triumphs and setbacks in her career, Rivera remained resilient and determined. She possessed an undeniable spirit that shone through her performances, even in shows that received less-than-stellar reviews. Critics often praised her for her razzle-dazzle and unwavering confidence on stage.

In 1986, Rivera faced a major setback when she suffered a serious car accident that could have derailed her career. However, she refused to let the accident define her. After months of physical therapy and intense determination, she made a remarkable recovery and returned to dancing, showcasing her strength and resilience.

Rivera’s contributions to the performing arts were widely celebrated and recognized. She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002, a special Tony for lifetime achievement in 2018, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. She was hailed as an inspiration for women and Latinos, breaking barriers and leaving an indelible legacy.

Throughout her life, Rivera remained humble, always considering herself a hoofer at heart. She valued the camaraderie and support of her fellow performers and cherished the experiences she had with legendary figures such as Bob Fosse, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman, Gwen Verdon, and Liza Minnelli.

Chita Rivera was more than just a star; she was a true Broadway legend. Her unwavering passion, resilience, and prodigious talent continue to inspire aspiring performers and leave an enduring impact on the world of musical theater. As she once said, “When you’re a dancer, you just keep going at what you’re doing, and if you’re lucky, they keep picking you up.” And Chita Rivera’s talent and spirit will continue to shine on, even as she takes her final bow.