Born on January 23, 1933 in Washington, D.C., Chita Rivera went on to train at the School of American Ballet before becoming one of Broadway's most beloved stars. She garnered major attention for her role as Anita in 1957’s West Side Story, and earned her first Tony nomination for her role in 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie. Having won Tonys for her work in The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman among additional nominations and accolades, Rivera is a preeminent figure of the stage who’s also appeared in film and television.
Background and Early Work
Acclaimed dancer, singer and actress Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero on January 23, 1933 in Washington, D.C. Of Puerto Rican descent with a father who was a musician (and who died when Rivera was seven years old), Rivera went on to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, the educational arm of the New York City Ballet. Her mother had encouraged Rivera's dancing studies as an outlet for her endless energy.
When she was just 17, Rivera accompanied a friend to an audition for the 1952 national tour of Call Me Madam, starring Elaine Stritch with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Although Rivera didn’t intend to audition, the young ballerina with the beautiful voice landed a role. The following year she got her start on Broadway as a principal dancer (replacing Onna White) in Guys and Dolls and then in the Cole Porter musical Can-Can, starring her future co-star Gwen Verdon.
Anita in 'West Side Story'
By the middle of the decade, Rivera was featured in the off-Broadway show Shoestring Revue before landing back on Broadway in 1955’s Seventh Heaven, co-starring Ricardo Montalban and Bea Arthur. The show was relatively short-lived, but Rivera was establishing herself as a theatrical force. Next up came a part as Rita Romano in the 1956 musical Mr. Wonderful, which starred Sammy Davis Jr.
Rivera had a standby role in 1957’s Shinbone Alley, and later that year she would receive one of the most defining roles of her career, that of Anita in Leonard Bernstein's and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, which featured choreography by Jerome Robbins. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the musical showcased the tumultuous love of two young people from different ethnic backgrounds. In what went on to become one of the most popular musicals of all time, Rivera became known for her iconic renditions of songs like “A Boy Like That,” eventually starring in the 1958 London version of the production as well.
'Bye Bye Birdie' and 'Chicago'
Rivera had another hit with her role as Rose in 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie, a musical comedy in which she co-starred opposite Dick Van Dyke and earned her first Tony nomination. Rivera’s next Broadway role came with 1964’s Bajour, in which she played a Roma princess. Rivera later starred in the 1967 national tour production of Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity. She also had a supporting role in Charity's 1969 movie adaptation, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Davis Jr.
In the ‘70s, Rivera could be seen on television as a guest star on Kojak and in several episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, thus reuniting with her Birdie stage-mate. She then found Broadway glory once again with her scintillating, Tony-nominated turn as Velma Kelly in Chicago (1975), co-starring Gwen Verdon with choreography by Bob Fosse and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb respectively.
Tony for 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'
The beginning of the ‘80s saw Rivera starring in the extremely short-lived follow-up Bring Back Birdie (1981), followed by a turn as a queen in 1983’s Merlin. In 1984’s The Rink, Rivera was reunited with the team of Kander and Ebb, depicting an Italian mom who has a difficult relationship with her daughter, played by Liza Minnelli. Rivera won her first Tony for the role as well as a Drama Desk Award. Then in 1985 she was part of the ensemble cast of the Jerry Herman tribute Jerry’s Girls. The following year, Rivera was in a car accident that broke her left leg in multiple places, with more than a dozen metal screws used to fix the injury and months of rehabilitation required.
Entering her 60s, Rivera once again received accolades for her roles as both Aurora and the title character in the Kander/Ebb production Kiss of the Spider Woman, with its edgier themes of an imprisoned man who finds release through his imaginings of a film star. The musical, based on the novel that also spawned a 1985 Oscar-nominated movie, saw Rivera earn her second Tony win.
10th Nomination for 'The Visit'
Rivera appeared in the 2003 revival of Nine, starring Antonio Banderas, and later headlined a revue of her career in Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life for which she received another Tony nomination. With a book by Terrence McNally, the show ran from late 2005 to 2006 on Broadway and then went on tour. By decade's end, Rivera received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
After appearing in the 2012 revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rivera took on the lead role in The Visit. The Kander/Ebb musical had an oft-delayed, very circuitous route to Broadway but started previews in March 2015, showcasing Rivera as wealthy woman who returns to her hometown, seeking revenge on a former love and the townspeople who have done her wrong. In late April, Rivera received her 10th Tony nomination for the part.
In addition to her unwavering devotion to stage work, Rivera has also recorded solo albums Chita! (1962), And Now I Sing (1963) and And Now I Swing (2009), with her own Legends of Broadway release (2006) serving as a retrospective of some of her most well-known tunes.
Rivera married her West Side Story co-star Tony Mordente in December 1957. The couple had a daughter, Lisa, who followed her parents' into show business as a singer/dancer/choreographer. Rivera and Mordente divorced in 1966. According to Rivera's official website, the Broadway legend maintains that despite her many career highlights, "her most treasured production is her daughter."
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