February 22, 2024

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Chita Rivera, star of Broadway and beyond, has died at the age of 91

Chita Rivera, star of Broadway and beyond, has died at the age of 91

Chita Rivera, the fire and ice dancer, singer and actress who catapulted to stardom in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story” and dazzled audiences for nearly seven decades as the Puerto Rican star of American musical theater, died Tuesday. in New York. She was 91 years old.

The death was announced in a statement by her daughter, Lisa Mordente. No other details were mentioned.

For generations of music fans, Ms. Rivera has been an essential force for swirling, ambient dancing and high-kicking. A seductive singer of smoky songs and sizzling jazz; And an actress driven by vaudevillian energy. She has appeared in dozens of theater productions in New York and London, traveled 100,000 miles on cabaret tours and acted in dozens of films and television shows.

On Broadway, she created a series of unforgettably tough women — Anita in “West Side Story” (1957), Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960), and the licentious assassin Velma Kelly in “Chicago” (1975). (1975). Starring role in the movie “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993). She sang enduring numbers in those roles: “America” In “West Side Story” “one boy” And “Spanish Rose” In “Bye Bye Birdie” and “All this jazz” In Chicago.”

Critics thumbed synonyms for hyperbole to speak enthusiastically about her fireworks. In 2005, Newsweek He called her “Just the greatest musical theater dancer ever.” Reviewing her performance in “Bye Bye Birdie” in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson described her as “the combustible diva and gyroscopic dancer.” Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine about her Tony Award-winning turn as Anna in “The Rink” (1984): “Piling 30 years of Broadway experience into the frame of a vivacious teenager, the 51-year-old performer can now sell a song to the deaf.” “

Ms. Rivera was a perfectionist and a hard worker, rarely missing anything, let alone performing. Trained in classical ballet before joining musical theatre, she was a darling on Broadway, where she began performing in the early 1950s. With her stunning voice and eloquent body language, she radiated a charisma rooted in her powerful singing and dancing techniques and in the pleasures she derived from them.

As a singer and actress, Ms. Rivera is largely self-taught, although she received on-the-job education under some of the pantheon's most prominent teachers: the choreographers Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, the composer Leonard Bernstein, and the librettist Robert Bernstein. The team of John Kander, Fred Ebb, and playwright Terrence McNally.

In 1986, Ms. Rivera was forced to put her dancing life on hold when a taxi collided with her car in Manhattan, crushing her left leg in dozens of places. She underwent two surgeries, using screws and plates to reattach her bones, followed by months of rehabilitation. For many dancers, the injuries might have been career-ending, but about a year after the accident, she began dancing again, easing her path back to the cabaret shows she had struggled with for years.

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She never fully recovered. “You'll never see me in ballet slippers again because I don't have an Achilles tendon,” she told the Times in 1993, when she returned to Broadway after a seven-year absence to star in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” She added: “I can't do a full stretch. But I no longer have any pain. The only problem is that my legs set off metal detectors at airports.”

In “Chita Rivera: The Life of a Dancer,” an autobiographical retrospective that ran on Broadway in 2005, she performed a tango about the men in her past, dance sequences by Mr. Fosse, Mr. Robbins and other choreographers, and a variety of her own works. Musical highlights, including “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story” and “All That Jazz” from “Chicago.”

“At seventy-two, she still has the voice and the attitude and — oh, yes — the legs that attract all the eyes of the audience,” Ben Brantley wrote in a review for The Times. “She is a professional in a world of strict judgments and mythical standards. It's only right that The Dancer's Life presents her as the quintessential gypsy, a gifted troupe who's had the right breaks.

A decade later, Ms. Rivera was still making headlines, starring in the 2015 musical adaptation of The Visit, a Kander Ebb McNally musical based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's satirical play about greed and revenge. In it, she played a wealthy widow who returns to her depressed hometown with an offer of money to kill an old flame who has betrayed her long ago.

The production ran on Broadway for 11 weeks, including previews, grossed $2 million and received five Tony nominations. “The opening-night audience was on its feet, and its applause was so loud and sustained that Ms. Rivera had to wave it off with a solemn sweep of her hand,” the Times reported.

Ms. Rivera has achieved honors throughout her long career. She won two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical “rink” And “Spider Woman's Kiss”; He was nominated for eight others; In 2018, he received a special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2002, she became the first Hispanic American woman Receive honors from the Kennedy CenterDC's version of the Oscars, in a lineup that included Elizabeth Taylor, James Earl Jones, and Paul Simon.

In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Barack Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

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It was the culmination of a saga that began a few miles away in Washington on January 23, 1933, with the birth of Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, the third of five children of Pedro Julio and Katherine (Anderson) del Rivero.

Her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, played clarinet and saxophone with the U.S. Navy Band and the Harry James Orchestra. He died when Conchita was seven years old. Her mother, who was of Scottish, Irish, and Puerto Rican descent and also had African-American ancestors, she discovered late in life, became a Pentagon employee and enrolled Conchita in singing, dancing, and piano lessons. . Dancing became her passion. On the advice of her teacher, she auditioned for George Balanchine and won a scholarship to his School of American Ballet in New York City.

Living with her uncle's family in the Bronx, she graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1951. In an open call for dancers, she won a role with a national touring company in Irving Berlin's “Call Me Madam.” After 10 months on the road, she replaced Oona White as principal dancer in “Guys and Dolls” in New York. Over the next few years, she danced in “Seventh Heaven,” “Shoestring Revue” and “Mr. Terrific.” Her career soared. She shortened her name to the attractive Chita Rivera.

In 1953, she got an offer on Broadway as a chorus dancer in Can-Can, a Cole Porter and Abby Burroughs musical starring Gwen Verdon, who encouraged Ms. Rivera to cast in the marquee. She won a role in the movie “Mr. Terrific” and struck up a romantic relationship with its star, Sammy Davis Jr.

Ms. Rivera reached stardom in 1957 as Anita in West Side Story, a Romeo and Juliet story set in postwar Manhattan, where lovers Maria and Tony are caught up in a deadly war between street gangs. As Anita, she sang a touching duet with Carol Lawrence as Maria, “A boy like this / I have love” And magical “Tonight,” As well as leading an exciting band in America.

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Mr. Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents, the musical received rave reviews and ran for 732 performances before going on tour, and had a longer run in London.

In 1957, Ms. Rivera married Anthony Mordente, a dancer on “West Side Story.” They divorced in 1966. In addition to her daughter, Lisa, she is survived by two brothers, Julio and Armando. and her sister, Lola Del Rivero. Mrs. Rivera lived in Rockland County, New York

Other triumphs followed, beginning with the original 1960 production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” a musical comedy about a daredevil character inspired by Elvis Presley. It satirized the fading era of 1950s rock 'n' roll, celebrity culture, the power of television in small-town America, and show business in general. Ms. Rivera appeared as a songwriter's secretary who turns the loss of a meal ticket to her agency, the rock star Conrad Byrde, who has been drafted into the army, into a coup by organizing a national kiss-good-bye contest for swooning audiences. Ms. Rivera, nominated for her first Tony Award, raved in The Guardian: “Her character is so engaging that we tend to forget the plot and just wait for Ms. Rivera to take center stage.”

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She received another Tony nomination in 1976 for the original Broadway production of Chicago, the satirical musical about 1920s vice. Ms. Rivera plays Velma Kelly opposite Ms. Verdon's Roxie Hart, two rival killers in the Cook County Jail vying for glaring publicity and the services of never-losing lawyer Billy Flynn, who plays Jerry. Auerbach. It ran for 936 performances.

Ms. Rivera's Broadway career rarely slowed, and when she found the time, she filled it with international cabaret work and appeared in films, television dramas, comedies and in variety shows for Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Gary Moore, Sid Caesar, and Carol. Burnett.

Her filmography included six documentaries about Broadway and its stars. She also appeared in Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2021 film Tick, Tick…Boom! Biographical musical drama based on Jonathan Larson's musical of the same name.

In 2017, the Astaire Awards, named after Fred and Adele Astaire, who appeared in 10 Broadway musicals between 1917 and 1931, were renamed the Chita Rivera Dance and Choreography Awards.

In 2015, Broadway was amazed when Ms. Rivera, 82, opened “The Visit.”

Haven't you thought about retiring?

“Oh God, no,” she said He told BroadwayDirect.com. “It's up to God. But in the meantime, life is wonderful and I'm lucky enough to have lived for a long time surrounded by the greatest creative people. I still have a lot to dance and sing about, and I have a lot of people to entertain.”

Her long-awaited autobiography, “Chita: A Memoir,” written with journalist Patrick Pacheco, was published in the spring of 2023. It traced her life “with the clarity and indifference of a war veteran,” revealing two different sides of Ms. Rivera’s life. Personality, wrote Juan A. Ramirez in The Times.

While Chita is the kind person “who tries to hold it all together, solves problems, and loves to laugh,” Ms. Rivera wrote, “the rebel in her,” called Dolores, “doesn’t back down, and gets her jobs. “With my protection.”

Alex Troup Contributed to reports.