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Broadway icon Chita Rivera dies at age 91

Rivera was known for her roles in “West Side Story,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
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Legendary Broadway performer Chita Rivera, star of “West Side Story,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has died, according to her representative, Merle Frimark. She was 91.

In a career defined both by longevity and excellence, she created and performed iconic roles on stage — thrilling audiences, wowing critics and inspiring generations of Latino performers.  

Rivera's daughter, Lisa Mordente, said in a statement that her mother died Tuesday in New York "after a brief illness."

“She was one of the few performers who put their stamp on Broadway in virtually every decade,” said performance historian Brian Herrera of Princeton University. “She was a treasure of the American theater.”

Unlike some theater stars who leave Broadway for television and film, or dancers who transition into choreographers, Rivera never lost her love of being on stage. “She was a performer, through and through,” Herrera said. “She was remarkable, not only for her achievements, but because she was extraordinarily beloved.”  

Of Puerto Rican heritage, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born in Washington, D.C., in 1933. By age 16, she had auditioned for famed choreographer George Balanchine and moved to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet. Her early Broadway career included roles in “Guys and Dolls” (1953) and “Can-Can” (1954). 

Chita Rivera during a performance of 'The Visit'  in New York City
Chita Rivera during a performance of "The Visit" in New York City on April 23, 2015.Walter McBride / Getty Images file

But it was in 1957’s “West Side Story” that Rivera had her breakout Broadway role, playing “Anita” in one of the most popular musicals of all time. On that show, she worked with musical theater legends Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Rivera was also known for her association with the creative team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb.

“She has always won the highest praise from her collaborators,” Herrera pointed out.  

“She was one of the greats. She is one of the consummate Broadway 'triple threats' that inspired us all,” said Nina Lafarga, who has appeared on Broadway in “In the Heights” and “Frozen.” She recalled that when Rivera visited the cast of “In the Heights” after a performance, “everyone was beside themselves.” 

For more than five decades, Rivera played roles on Broadway ranging from the girlfriend of a rock star’s manager in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960) to an alleged murderess in “Chicago” (1975) and a former showgirl at the Follies Bergere in “Nine” (2003).

A 10-time Tony Award nominee, Rivera won for “The Rink” in 1984 and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in 1993. She also received a special lifetime achievement Tony in 2018.  

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“She truly lived ‘the dancer’s life,” Lafarga said, mentioning the title of Rivera’s 2005 show. “Her heart has always been in live theater.” 

Rivera’s work on Broadway was remarkable considering that jobs in commercial theater have traditionally been scarce for Latino performers. A 2022 report by the Actors Equity Association, a union for stage performers, found that only 4.1% of union contracts nationwide went to Latinos from 2016 to 2020 — and Rivera achieved success long before the industry had any concept of “diversity” or “nontraditional casting.” 

In 2002, Rivera became the first Hispanic woman to receive the Kennedy Center Honor.

In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At that ceremony, President Barack Obama said Rivera “knows the adversity that comes with a difficult name,” while noting that she had “captured America’s imagination with her magnetic presence and radiant voice.” 

Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera in 1956.Ted Streshinsky / Corbis via Getty Images

Rivera supported many charitable causes, from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to helping Puerto Rico fight the Zika virus and Covid-19 relief efforts. In 2013, she served as grand marshal of New York City’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. 

Even in her later years, Rivera remained in the public eye. In 2021, she hosted PBS’ New Year’s Eve special, featuring an array of Broadway and classical performers. Her book “Chita: A Memoir,” written with Patrick Pacheco, was released last year.

“When I was growing up, I knew from a young age that she was someone I wanted to emulate,” said Yesenia Ayala, who starred as "Anita" in the 2020 Broadway revival of “West Side Story.”

Ayala remembered watching Rivera in the film “Sweet Charity” and being drawn to her. “I loved that she could sing, she could dance, and she was funny. She even had mannerisms that reminded me of my mom," she said. 

Rivera was a hero to dancers, Ayala added, “because she showed that we are more than just the steps.”  

Ayala also appeared in the “West Side Story” movie as one of the Shark girls. “During shooting (in 2019), Steven Spielberg invited (Rivera) to the set to have lunch with us, and it was wonderful. She was so funny, feisty, and sassy; it felt very special to spend some time with her.”

Before the opening night of the Broadway revival of “West Side Story” in February 2020, Ayala said that she felt some trepidation taking on a role that Rivera had created. “But Chita was very kind and generous with her advice. She just told me to be myself.”  

“She was everything you would want her to be in person,” Ayala said. “Whatever you may think she is, she was that — and more.” 

Rivera is survived by her daughter and her siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero along with her many nieces, nephews and friends.

Mordente said Rivera's funeral will be private and a memorial service will be announced. The family stated that it respectfully requests privacy at this time.