New York: Musical theatre legend Chita Rivera dies aged 91

Broadway legend, film star and cabaret performer Chita Rivera has died aged 91.

Lisa Mordente, the actress’s daughter, said Rivera had passed away in New York after a brief illness.

Rivera is being remembered for originating many iconic roles on Broadway, memorable film performances and being a trailblazer for Latino women in the arts.

Chita Rivera was the first actress to play the role of Anita in West Side Story, she played the role of Nicky in Sweet Charity on both stage and screen, and she was the original Velma Kelly in the 1970’s premiere of Chicago.

She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical twice. Firstly in 1984 for The Rink, and a second time in 1993 for her title role in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. 

In 2002 Rivera became the first American-born Latino to be awarded a Kennedy Center Honour.

She was awarded the USA’s President Medal of Freedom in 2009, and in 2018 the Tony’s honoured her with a lifetime achievement award.

Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson was born in Washington, D.C. on January 23, 1933, she began her career in the 1951 touring production of Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stitch.

She went on to appear in Broadway productions including Guys and Dolls, Can-Can and Mr Wonderful. Her big break came in 1957 when she cast to play the feisty Anita in West Side Story. 

Rivera worked on Broadway, in television and films throughout her long career. In 2021 she appeared in the film Tick, Tick… Boom! 

Rivera chatted to OUTinPerth back in 2011 ahead of her delivering her one-woman show at His Majesty’s Theatre. During our conversation she shared her thoughts on the secret of success.

“You have to love what you do, and love the theatre, and love everybody else, you can’t do it by yourself. You have to really care about the cast. And if you got great material, don’t be foolish, do it right.

“You’ve got to be as lucky as I was and have great directors and choreographers, and then just do what you’re told.” Rivera said.

Prominent celebrities have praised Rivera’s career. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the film version of West Side Story led the many tributes.

“Chita Rivera is eternal,” Moreno said in an Instagram post. “I remember seeing her for the first time in Mr. Wonderful and exclaiming, ‘Oh my god, who IS that’? When I tound out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride.”

“She was the essence of Broadway,” Moreno. “As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, Salud!”

Ariana DeBose who played Anita in Steven Speilberg’s remake of the film also offered praise.

“To be in her presence was to behold greatness,” DeBose said. “I always got the sense that she had great expectations, but none greater than the ones she held herself to…I am heartbroken and yet ever inspired as she showed so many of us what was possible. Rest well Queen.💜 #ChitaRivera”

Actor and choreographer Debbie Allen said Rivera had been a great mentor.

“My Mentor, My Friend, Our Goddess of Inspiration and Joy – Thank You. Every moment of your life has been a treasure of what is possible. I will miss touching you, but I will forever hear your laughter and hold that baton of power you tossed my way.” Allen posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. 

Rivera was also praised by GLAAD for her lifetime work of advocating for the rights of LGBTIQA+ people.

“Broadway legend Chita Rivera has sadly passed away at age 91. Rivera spent much of her long career advocating for LGBTQ people and people living with HIV and AIDS. Our hearts go out to everyone who loved her.” the organisation said.

Graeme Watson 

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