Chita Rivera, who has died aged 91, was the dark-haired American actress, singer and dancer who created Anita in the 1957 Broadway premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story; the following year she did the same for the British premiere, where she was considered so central to the show’s success that the London opening was postponed until she had given birth to her daughter.
West Side Story was created by director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as a story about urban gang warfare in post-war Manhattan, based on Romeo and Juliet. The sultry and dark character of Chita Rivera – described by one critic as “electric as an eel and so much warmer” – was borrowed from the Nurse in Shakespeare’s tragedy, who advised her younger friend Maria, the doomed Puerto Rican heroine, comforted and consoled. has a passion for Tony, a born American. Her Anita was.
One of the most sensational moments is Anita’s sardonic portrayal of America, a playfully argumentative, fast-paced Latin American song in which the immigrants compare their previous lives with life in New York. The homesick Rosalia’s wistful memory of an “island of tropical breezes” contrasts sharply with her friend’s “island of tropical diseases.” The song often stopped the show, thanks to the spirited delivery and dry-humored acting of the fiery Chita Rivera, herself of Puerto Rican descent.
A different side of the previously brash and hip-swaying Anita emerges when her brother Bernardo is murdered in a gang rumble, and in the powerful opera A Boy Like That she begs Maria to “stick with your own kind”. Chita Rivera recalled receiving a masterclass in dramatic singing from Bernstein himself for that song. “After one of my feeble attempts he said, ‘Chita, your friend has just been killed. You just found out that your best friend, Maria, slept with the boy who stabbed him. Give it a little heat’. ”
West Side Story was seen at the Manchester Opera House in November 1958 before transferring to Her Majesty’s Theater in London the following month, where Princess Margaret was in the first evening audience. British critics noted that Chita Rivera could not only evoke great depth in her singing, but was also a dashing dancer.
She rose to even greater fame in 1960 as Dick Van Dyke’s secretary Rose Grant in Bye Bye Birdie, the first successful rock ‘n’ roll musical, which revolved around an Elvis Presley-like character. The following year that also arrived in the West End, with the Telegraph reporting that Chita Rivera “quit the show”.
Bye Bye Birdie earned the first of ten Tony Award nominations, with another for its sequel, Bring Back Birdie (1981), which closed after just four nights. In all, she won two Tonys, for the Kander and Ebb roller skating musical The Rink in 1984 with Liza Minnelli, and for their Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), based on Manuel Puig’s novel that brings together a gay window dresser and a strict Marxist in a hellish Latin American prison.
Unusually, Kiss of the Spider Woman opened at the Shaftesbury Theater in London rather than on Broadway. Writing in the Telegraph, Charles Spencer marveled at Chita Rivera’s agility in the stunning song and dance routines, adding: “Lifting her astonishingly flexible legs to almost unimaginable heights, it is impossible to believe that she is merely her bus pass is a few months short.”
Previously, she had played the ruthless vaudevillian Velma Kelly in the 1920s musical Chicago, another Kander and Ebb show, which premiered on Broadway in 1975. When it was revived in London in 1990, she played Velma’s counterpart, Roxie, a role originally played by her. friend Gwen Verdon. She also made a rare film appearance in the Oscar-winning 2002 film adaptation starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger, sucking on a cigarette in a cameo in a prison cell. Afterwards, she told The Advocate magazine: “I looked like Cher in drag.”
Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born in Washington on January 23, 1933, into a “very Catholic household,” the third of five children. Her Puerto Rican father Pedro played clarinet and saxophone in a U.S. Navy band, but died when she was seven. Her mother Katherine (née Anderson), who was of Scottish, Irish and African-American descent, worked as a government secretary at the Pentagon.
At home, Conchita was a lively and restless child, who caused chaos by jumping over the furniture. The sacred theater of Sunday Mass almost led her to become a nun, “but then I fell through the coffee table.” Her exasperated mother enrolled her in a ballet school in the hope that her daughter would burn off some energy and learn a little discipline.
She was sent to live with an uncle in the Bronx and was educated at Taft High School, New York. At 11, she pursued a career in classical ballet, but turned to modern dance after winning a scholarship to George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. She recalled how during her audition, a “tall, blonde, beautiful dancer came running out of the audition room and screamed, ‘I can’t! I can not do it! I can not!’ If she couldn’t do it, how could I? I was small, brown and nervous, but my teacher told me, “Just stay in your lane and look straight ahead.” And I got in. One step, one plié, led to the next – and ultimately to Broadway.”
There she was in the chorus of Call Me Madam (1952), while touring the US as a principal dancer in the same production with Elaine Stritch. As Broadway’s favorite trouper, she enjoyed appearances in the chorus of Guys and Dolls (1953) and Can-Can (1954), before enlivening such shows as The Shoestring Revue (1955), Seventh Heaven (also 1955) and Mr Wonderful (1956). . She started out billed as Conchita del Rivero, but shortened her name because it was too long for posters. She understudied for Eartha Kitt in Shinbone Alley in April 1957, and five months later received critical acclaim overnight for her courageous performance as Anita in West Side Story.
In the 1980s her career faded away somewhat. After the failure of Bring Back Birdie, she had little luck as an evil sorceress in the musical Merlin (1983). Two years later, her leg was ‘mutilated from the knee down’ in a car accident, which required twelve bolts in the bones.
But by the end of the year she was back on Broadway, singing, dancing and acting in Jerry’s Girls, a tribute to composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, who described her in his memoir as “a true friend to everyone in the business ”.
Chita Rivera’s pre-performance rituals included gently closing the dressing room door just before going on stage and saying her prayers. “I would say the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition,” she told The Guardian. “Then I would go crazy.” Sumo wrestling was another great passion; she was introduced to the sport when she went to Japan with a musical in the 1980s and fell in love with a wrestler.
In 2005, she appeared in her own retrospective, The Dancer’s Life, which included a tango about the men in her life, and in 2009 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She continued to appear on stage, playing an opium den madam in a 2012 Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and a wealthy widow in a 2015 musical adaptation of The Visit. She received a Lifetime Achievement Medal at the Tony Awards in 2018 and the following year appeared in cabaret at Cadogan Hall in London.
Her memoir, written during the Covid pandemic with Patrick Pacheco, was published last year. In it she describes herself as two people: Dolores, who is brash and fiery, and Conchita, who takes all the credit. She devoted a chapter to Sammy Davis Jr., with whom she had a romantic relationship after meeting early in her career on It’s Wonderful. She also dated Joe Allen, the restaurateur, in the 1970s.
In 1957, Chita Rivera, who was a shark in West Side Story, married Tony Mordente, who played one of the Jets (he was A-Rab in the stage version and Action in the film). “It’s like a naughty boy deliberately doing something his parents told him he shouldn’t do,” she told The Daily Telegraph of their cross-cultural union. “But Jerry Robbins loved it. By the way, he gave us our wedding dinner.”
The marriage was dissolved in 1966 and she is survived by her daughter, the actress Lisa Mordente, who eventually played Anita herself in a Florida production choreographed by her father.
Chita Rivera, born January 23, 1933, died January 30, 2024