You are currently viewing In Appreciation: Chita Rivera

In Appreciation: Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera, the vivacious Broadway musical star who originated roles in “West Side Story,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” won two competitive Tony Awards, and became one of the most honored Latina entertainers of her generation, died Jan. 30 in New York. She was 91.

Her daughter, Lisa Mordente, announced the death but did not provide a specific cause.

With her raven hair, lithe frame and smoky voice, Ms. Rivera cut a mesmerizing Broadway figure for more than six decades, her name synonymous with vitality and longevity on the musical stage. She was a reliable box-office draw, whether in grand-scale New York productions, regional theater, national tours or her nightclub act, and proved choreographically adaptable from the gritty minimalism of Bob Fosse to the balletic grace of Jerome Robbins.

“People are always saying that Chita’s the last of a certain kind of performer,” composer John Kander told the Los Angeles Times. “But they’re wrong. I don’t remember there being any performers like her.”

Her stamina scarcely declined as she aged. At 70, she delivered a slinky tango with Antonio Banderas in a 2003 Broadway revival of the Maury Yeston musical “Nine.” At that time, she was still said to possess some of the fastest legs in the business, even as she took flying splits and backflips out of her repertoire. It was a minor accommodation in a seemingly inexhaustible career.

Raised in Washington by a widowed mother, Ms. Rivera said she was placed in ballet classes as a youngster to curb her habit of breaking furniture as she leaped around the house.

At 15, she began years of study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in Manhattan before deciding that the discipline of the corps de ballet did not suit her strengths. Irrepressibly jazzy, and with a seemingly ever-present glittering smile, she said she simply could not hold a straight face.

On a lark, she tried out for a touring musical theater production and proved a wonder of comic timing and bravura dancing. As she made her way in the 1950s from the chorus line to featured roles as an actress and singer, her gravity-defying kicks and shimmying torso drew superlatives from critics (“gyroscopic,” “flammable,” “exhilarating”).

After her breakthrough as Anita, who belts the showstopper “America” in “West Side Story” (1957), she premiered Broadway roles including the resourceful talent-agent secretary Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), which garnered the first of her 10 Tony Award nominations; the husband-killing, publicity-hungry Velma Kelly in “Chicago” (1975); the kitschy B-movie star Aurora in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993); and the skating-rink owner with a prodigal daughter (played by Liza Minnelli) in “The Rink” (1984).

The latter two shows earned her Tonys and, with the addition of “Chicago,” underscored her long association with the songwriting team of Kander and Fred Ebb. Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who similarly found inspiration in big stage personalities such as Ms. Rivera, also became one of her frequent collaborators.

Her career was a roller coaster of landmark productions and others that shuttered quietly in out-of-town tryouts or fizzled on Broadway. Regardless, she was the quintessential show business trouper who dusted herself off and moved on. Even in shows that received tepid reviews, she was almost universally garlanded by reviewers for her razzle-dazzle spirit.

In his otherwise mixed criticism of “Kiss,” a surreal prison drama in which Aurora appears as both object of fantasy and angel of death, Frank Rich of the New York Times singled out Ms. Rivera for displaying “an aura of utter confidence that is the essence of a Broadway dancer’s brassy spirit.”

“Ms. Rivera can raise the audience’s pulse even when she’s doing nothing much,” Rich continued, “such as merely bouncing to the beat in white tie and tails, riding the music with her shoulders and knees as if it were all hard angles, in the final bars of a jazzy Latin-flavored number titled ‘Where You Are.’”

“Kiss” also marked her return to Broadway after a serious car accident in 1986 nearly derailed her career. While driving home from the theater one night, her Datsun collided with a taxi as she attempted a U-turn on a Manhattan street. She was left with a crushed leg and other injuries; no charges were filed.

“You say ‘break’ and you think ‘finished,’” she told the Associated Press after the crash. “I thought, ‘I’m a dancer and I broke my leg.’ Then I heard myself say, ‘Oh, well, it’s mending, and you’re not dying.’ You can’t think ‘end.’ Because if you do, you go straight to it.”

After 11 months of physical therapy, she worked at supper clubs, then aboard cruise ships, regaining her strength. Within a year, she was dancing again with 16 pins in her leg, displaying her mettle in a national tour of the high-stepping musical “Can-Can.”

She received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2002 and a special Tony for lifetime achievement in 2018. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2009, lauding her as a barrier-breaking inspiration for women and Latinos.

The trade publication Variety termed her the “grande dame of Broadway gypsies,” referring to the fraternity of committed entertainers who drift from show to show. More than any blue-ribbon honor or medal, she said, her entree into that community was the most meaningful achievement of her career.

“I never wanted to be a star,” she told the Los Angeles Times. She said she saw herself as a hoofer — albeit one who could name-drop Bob (Fosse), Lenny (Bernstein), Jerry (Herman), Gwen (Verdon) and Liza (Minnelli), the last of whom liked to send Ms. Rivera a note on opening nights that read, “Take no prisoners!”

“When you’re a dancer,” Ms. Rivera said, “you just keep going at what you’re doing, and if you’re lucky they keep picking you up.”

Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23, 1933. She was 7 when her Puerto Rican-born father, a Navy Band reed player, died. Her mother became a government clerk at the Pentagon.

As a child, Ms. Rivera was a self-described tomboy. “Bicycles, skates, walking the back fences, climbing the trees,” she later said to the publication Theater Mania. “I just broke up all the furniture in the house. My mother had to get rid of me. So she put me in dance class.”

She attended a local ballet school run by Doris Jones and Claire Haywood, one of the few in the country for students of color. A scout from the School of American Ballet was impressed by Ms. Rivera, who enrolled on a scholarship.

In 1952, she accompanied a classmate to an audition to lend moral support and was herself cast in the national touring company of the Irving Berlin musical “Call Me Madam,” choreographed by Robbins. Her friend didn’t make the final call, and, Ms. Rivera later recalled, “I have not seen her since then, actually.”

Offered wages of $250 a week on the road, she left the Balanchine school and subsequently worked as a replacement dancer in Broadway productions including “Guys and Dolls” and “Can-Can.”

Amid various name changes — from Conchita to Chita, from del Rivero to Rivera (after a brief run as Chita O’Hara) — she made a strong critical impression in the 1955 off-Broadway show “Shoestring Revue,” donning a blond wig and impersonating Marilyn Monroe.

She appeared in “Mr. Wonderful” (1956) and was romanced offstage by its star, Sammy Davis Jr., before landing the prominent supporting role as Anita in “West Side Story,” directed and choreographed by Robbins. The Tony-winning musical, with music by Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, retold the Shakespearean tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” with two warring New York City street gangs.

With her rendition of “America” — twirling her skirt to a huapango rhythm while wisecracking about her character’s ancestral homeland of Puerto Rico — she received nightly standing ovations in the New York and London stage runs. Ms. Rivera married one of the show’s dancers, Tony Mordente, who later became a director and choreographer.

For the 1961 film version of “West Side Story,” she was replaced by movie-musical veteran Rita Moreno, who collected an Academy Award for her performance. (Although they regarded Ms. Rivera as a superior dancer, film producers reportedly thought Moreno had a more alluring presence on-screen.)

Despite the snub, Ms. Rivera rebounded with her first leading Broadway role — Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Rose was the spitfire love interest of Albert, a mild-mannered talent agent who represents an Elvis-like rock star but dreams of becoming an English teacher. Albert was played by the relative newcomer Dick Van Dyke.

The score, by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, was considered dated even then, with tuneful but corny songs such as “Put on a Happy Face.” But Ms. Rivera (working with choreographer Gower Champion) provided welcome zest to such numbers as the comical “Shriners’ Ballet” and her solo “Spanish Rose.”

Although it earned middling reviews, “Bye Bye Birdie” won a Tony for best musical. Again, Ms. Rivera was passed over for the film adaptation. The nod went to movie star Janet Leigh, who donned a black wig for the role.

Beyond supporting roles in Fosse’s 1969 film musical “Sweet Charity,” the 1973 “Kojak” pilot and a short-lived 1973-74 run on the sitcom “The New Dick Van Dyke Show” — a period when Ms. Rivera, by then divorced, was living in Los Angeles and raising her daughter — she had minimal contact with movies and TV.

She hopscotched from summer-stock shows to Broadway. One of her biggest successes was “Chicago,” a musical set in the 1920s but steeped enough in cynicism about politics, crime and justice that it resonated in the Watergate era.

“Chicago” opened on Broadway with Ms. Rivera and her longtime idol, Verdon, performing garishly sexy, hip-thrusting choreography by Fosse. The show earned a torrent of Tony nominations — including one for Ms. Rivera — but “A Chorus Line” dominated the awards season. (The 1996 revival of “Chicago” became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time; Ms. Rivera made a cameo in the 2002 film version, which won the best picture Oscar.)

Among her higher-profile misfires — which still earned her Tony nods — were “Bring Back Birdie” (a 1981 sequel); “Merlin” (1983), a musical-magic show featuring illusionist Doug Henning; and “Jerry’s Girls” (1985), a tribute to songwriter Jerry Herman also starring Leslie Uggams and Dorothy Loudon.

She also earned Tony nominations for “Nine”; her 2005 retrospective “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life”; and “The Visit” (2015), Kander and Ebb’s musical about a wronged woman seeking vengeance.

Survivors include her daughter, Mordente, a Tony-nominated actress and dancer. (“All the kids thought my mom was the cool mom,” she told an AARP publication in 2011. “She would choreograph our little shows at junior high.”) She is also survived by two brothers and a sister.

Before publishing a memoir last year, Ms. Rivera tended in interviews to reveal little of her private life and turned anecdotes about her career and personal setbacks into lessons about the value of persistence.

To Playbill many years ago, she spoke of the need for performers to embrace failure, perhaps even more than success. The pain of competing against dozens if not hundreds and losing a role, she said, kept her vital and expressive in the service of art.

“I still claim that this is what makes you strong,” she said. “Too many people give up because they feel somebody’s hit them too hard, somebody who couldn’t shine their shoes. Creative people are sensitive. Otherwise, they can’t feel, and they can’t show you your own feelings.”