Broadway icon Chita Rivera dies at age 91

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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.  

In a statement to NBC News, Rivera’s daughter, Lisa Mordente, said 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 (“Bye Bye Birdie,” 1960), to an alleged murderess (“Chicago,” 1975) to a former showgirl at the Follies Bergere (“Nine,” 2003). A ten-time Tony Award nominee, Rivera won Tony Awards for “The Rink” (1984), “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” (1993) and 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 given that that jobs in the commercial theater have traditionally been scarce for Latino performers. A 2022 report by Actors Equity Association, the union for stage performers, found that only 4.1 percent of union contracts nationwide went to Latinos between 2019 and 2020. And Rivera achieved success long before the industry had any concept of “diversity” or “non-traditional casting.” 

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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 that 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.” 

Rivera supported many charitable causes, from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to helping Puerto Rico fight the Zika virus to 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 in 2023.  

“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.” She 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.”  Rivera was a hero to dancers, Ayala noted, “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 her opening night in “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 (Rivera) 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.

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