Chita Rivera, an Actress and Vocalist Who Won a Tony Award, Passed Away at the Age of 91

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera, a renowned stage and screen performer whose credits included “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and “Sweet Charity,” died. She was 91.

Merle Frimark, Rivera’s longtime publicist, confirmed the news to CNN on Tuesday, saying Rivera died “peacefully” “in New York after a brief illness.”

Rivera’s unparalleled Broadway career spanned decades, from playing Anita in “West Side Story” and opposite Dick Van Dyke in “Bye Bye Birdie” to signature Bob Fosse musicals like “Chicago” and “All That Jazz.” She received a record 10 Tony Award nominations and won two, for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Despite her hectic stage schedule, Rivera starred in a number of films and television shows, including adaptations of “Sweet Charity,” “Chicago,” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Her most recent screen credit was in Netflix’s 2021 film “Tick, Tick… Boom!” when she appeared in a segment alongside other stage musical superstars.

Rivera, born in Washington, DC in 1933, began training as a ballerina at the age of nine before being awarded a scholarship to the School of American Ballet by famed choreographer George Balanchine, according to an obituary in Frimark.

Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera

Rivera, whose father was Puerto Rican, quickly rose to prominence on Broadway as a triple threat (actor, singer, and dancer), paving the way for future Latinx artists. In 1957, she played the iconic character Anita in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story”.

Her stage career highlights include starring parts in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Rink,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” as well as the original Broadway productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Mr Wonderful.”

Rivera was honored by the Kennedy Center in 2002 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2009. She also received the 2018 Special Tony Award for lifetime accomplishment in theatre.

Rivera also wrote a book, “Chita: A Memoir,” which was released last year. Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of “Tick, Tick… Boom!”, described Rivera as “the trailblazer for Puerto Rico on Broadway.”

He described how Rivera wasn’t initially available for the scene in which he hoped she’d appear, but he left a chair open for her, determined to make it happen. His desire came true during the film’s reshoots when Rivera finally got to sit in the chair Miranda had designated for her. He claimed she “held court all day” on that particular day.

“It remains one of the greatest delights of my life. “She was magnificent,” he said. “She IS magnificent, not ready for the past tense just yet.” Rita Moreno, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the 1961 film production of “West Side Story,” said in a statement to CNN that Rivera was “eternal” and “the essence of Broadway.”

“When I found out that this amazing creature was one of my people, I was overjoyed,” Moreno, who is of Puerto Rican origin, said. “Being mistaken for each other over the years was a badge of honor for me. As I write this, I’m raising a glass to this amazing woman and friend. “Chita, amiga, salud!”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for playing a character originating by Rivera on Broadway – in this case, as Velma Kelly in the film adaptation of “Chicago” – acknowledged Rivera’s “incredible impact” on her life and paid respect to her “queen.”

“From dreaming of being you as a little girl, then meeting you and then being deeply connected to you by playing the one and only Velma Kelly in Chicago,” Zeta-Jones said in a post on Instagram. “There will never, ever, be anyone like you Chita, ever.”

Ariana DeBose, who also won an Academy Award for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of “West Side Story,” called Rivera “a force” in an Instagram tribute on Tuesday.


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“In truth, she made me nervous. To be in her presence was to behold greatness,” DeBose added. “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.”

Stephanie Pope, a Broadway actor, and Rivera’s acquaintance, told CNN on Tuesday that the late star “is and always will be a legend.”She set a level of perfection that we all strived for but will never match.”

“I cherish the time I spent with her both on stage and off,” he said. “The theater community and world has lost a true star.”

Frimark published a statement from Rivera’s daughter Lisa Mordente, who stated that the star’s funeral will be private and that she is survived by her daughter and siblings Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero, “along with her many nieces, nephews, and friends.”

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