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Chita Rivera, Broadway's 'first great triple threat,' dies at 91

Chita Rivera in May 1977.
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Chita Rivera in May 1977.

Chita Rivera, who appeared in more than 20 Broadway musicals over six decades, has died, according to her daughter, Lisa Mordente. The three-time Tony Award-winning Broadway legend created indelible roles — Anita in West Side Story, Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. She was 91.

Rivera "was everything Broadway was meant to be," says Laurence Maslon, co-producer of the 2004 PBS series Broadway: The American Musical. "She was spontaneous and compelling and talented as hell for decades and decades on Broadway. Once you saw her, you never forgot her."

You might think Chita Rivera was a Broadway baby from childhood — but she wasn't. Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., she told an audience at a Screen Actors Guild Foundation interview that she was a tomboy and drove her mother crazy: "She said, 'I'm putting you in ballet class so that we can rein in some of that energy.' So I am very grateful."

Rivera took to ballet so completely that she got a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York. But when she went with a friend to an audition for the tour of the Broadway show Call Me Madam, Rivera got the job. Goodbye ballet, hello Broadway. In 1957, she landed her breakout role, Anita in West Side Story, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

"Hearing 'America' was just mind-boggling, with that rhythm," Rivera told NPRin 2007 for the musical's 50th anniversary. "I just couldn't wait to do it. It was such a challenge. And, being Latin, you know, it was a welcoming sound."

Chita Rivera, center, works with choreographer Jerome Robbins, second from left, and her fellow <em>West Side Story</em> cast members in a rehearsal on July 22, 1957.
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AP
Chita Rivera (center) works with choreographer Jerome Robbins (second from left) and her fellow West Side Story cast members in a rehearsal on July 22, 1957.

West Side Story allowed Rivera to reveal not only her athletic dancing chops, but her acting and singing chops. She recalls Leonard Bernstein teaching her the score himself: "I remember sitting next to Lenny and his starting with 'A Boy Like That,' teaching it to me and me saying, 'I'll never do this, I can't hit those notes, I don't know how to hit those notes.' "

But she did hit them, and being able to sing, act and dance made her a valuable Broadway commodity, said Maslon. "She was the first great triple threat. Broadway directors like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse saw the need to have performers who could do all three things and do them really well."

And, from 1960 to 2013, she headlined some big hits — as well as some major flops. In 1986, Rivera was in a serious taxi accident. Her left leg was shattered, and the doctors said she'd never dance again, but she did — just differently.

Chita Rivera, right, and Michelle Veintimilla perform at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015 in New York City.
Theo Wargo / Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
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Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Chita Rivera (right) and Michelle Veintimilla perform at the Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 7, 2015, in New York City.

"We all have to be realistic," she told NPR in 2005. "I don't do flying splits anymore. I don't do back flips and all the stuff that I used to do. You want to know something? I don't want to."

But her stardom never diminished. And the accolades flowed: She won several Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, a Kennedy Center honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rivera didn't do much television or film — she was completely devoted to the stage, says Maslon.

"That's why they're called Broadway legends," he says. "Hopefully you get to see them live because you'll never get to see them in another form in quite the same way."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chita Rivera receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former president Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House on Aug. 12, 2009.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Chita Rivera receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House on Aug. 12, 2009.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.