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Chita Rivera, Legendary Star of Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story & Chicago, Dies at 91

January 30th, 2024 | By Staff

Chita Rivera, the triple-threat performer whose career is highlighted by Tony-winning collaborations with John Kander and Fred Ebb, died on January 30 after a brief illness. Rivera’s daughter, Lisa Mordente, confirmed the death in a statement, also revealing that the funeral will be private. The cause of death was not given. Rivera was 91.

In Chita: A Memoir, Rivera summed up her decades-spanning career this way: “What came about surprised the hell out of me.”

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero on January 23, 1933 in Washington, D.C., Rivera landed her first major Broadway gig as a replacement dancer in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls (1950). She later joined the cast of the original staging of Can-Can (1953) and took on roles in Seventh Heaven (1955) and Mr. Wonderful (1956), serving as a standby to Eartha Kitt in Shinbone Alley (1957).

Shortly after, Rivera landed the role that made her a star: the fiery Anita in the original production of West Side Story (1957). She followed that performance with a musical-comedy turn as Rosie Grant opposite Dick Van Dyke as Albert Peterson in the Broadway premiere of Bye Bye Birdie (1960), earning Rivera her first Tony nomination.

Ken LeRoy as Bernardo & Chita Rivera as Anita in the 1957 original Broadway production of West Side Story
(Photo: Fred Fehl/NYPL)

Rivera first teamed up with songwriting partners Kander & Ebb in the main-stem debut of Chicago (1975). Rivera was Tony-nominated for her jazzy turn as Velma Kelly alongside Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in the production that was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Liza Minnelli famously stepped into the production for a five-week run as Roxie alongside Rivera.

Rivera reunited with Minnelli in another Kander & Ebb musical, The Rink (1984), playing mother and daughter Anna and Angel. The musical, featuring a book by Terrence McNally, earned Rivera her first Tony Award as Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Rivera followed that celebrated performance with a turn in the Jerry Herman revue Jerry’s Girls (1985), earning another Tony nod. During this decade, as Rivera told The Guardian, she fell in love with sumo wrestling. “I love the bigness, the formality,” she said.

Chita Rivera performing “Where You Are” in a scene from the 1993 Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman
(Photo: Martha Swope/NYPL)

Almost a decade later, McNally, Kander and Ebb recruited Rivera to take on the title role in their new musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), based on Manuel Puig’s novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña. The role earned Rivera positive reception and a second Tony Award.

Rivera offered up a retrospective of her career in the Broadway musical Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005), featuring a book by McNally and original songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Rivera was Tony-nominated for her performance in the production which featured direction and choreography by longtime collaborator Graciela Daniele. Former Bye Bye Birdie co-star Dick Van Dyke played a stint as a special guest.

Dick Van Dyke as Albert and Chita Rivera as Rosie in the 1960 original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie
(Photo: NYPL)

In 2001, Rivera signed on to star as Claire Zachannassian in McNally, Kander and Ebb’s musical The Visit, based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play Der Besuch der alten Dame. The show underwent more than a decade of development, including a 2001 premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, eventually leading to a 2015 Tony-nominated Broadway production directed by John Doyle. The musical earned Rivera her final Tony nomination.

Rivera’s extensive résumé of Broadway credits also includes Tony-nominated performances in Merlin (1983), Nine (2003) and the Bye Bye Birdie sequel Bring Back Birdie (1981), as well as turns in Bajour (1964) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2013).

On the big screen, Rivera appeared as Nickie in Fosse’s film adaptation of Sweet Charity (1969); she also made a cameo in the Oscar-winning Chicago film (2002). On television, Rivera played a guest arc as Connie Richardson on the TV reboot The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1973-1974).

Among the many additional awards bestowed upon Rivera is a Kennedy Center Honor (2002), a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama (2009) and the Theatre World Awards’ John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement (2015). In 2017, the Fred & Adele Astaire Awards, which honors the best in Broadway dance, were renamed the Chita Rivera Awards. In 2018, Rivera was presented with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Rivera was married to dancer Tony Mordente from 1957 until their divorce in 1966. She is survived by their daughter, Lisa Mordente, and siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero (her older sister Carmen predeceased her). Her funeral will be private, with a memorial service to be announced at a later time. Donations in her memory can be made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.


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