Broadway Icon Chita Rivera Dies at 91

Rivera passed away after a brief illness.

Chita Rivera
(© David Gordon)

Broadway legend Chita Rivera has died at the age of 91.

Rivera died peacefully on January 30 after a brief illness, according to daughter Lisa Mordente and publicist Merle Frimark.

Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, DC on January 23, 1933, Rivera trained as a ballerina from the age of nine, receiving a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. Her first major role, at the age of 19, was as a principal dancer in Call Me Madam. Her career was dotted with legendary original productions: Guys and Dolls and Can-Can, among them. Her performance as Anita in West Side Story made her a star, and she cemented her reputation as the original Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and Velma in Chicago. She was a two-time Tony winner for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as the recipient of a a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2018.

Among Rivera’s other Broadway roles are Lilliane in Nine opposite Antonio Banderas; Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood; herself in her biographical musical The Dancer’s Life; and Claire Zachannassian in The Visit, which marked her final Broadway appearance in 2015. She earned 10 Tony nominations over the course of her career.

Rivera was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented by President Barack Obama, and Living Landmark status from the New York Landmarks Concervancy. She toured throughout the world as a cabaret performer, playing sold-out shows at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Cadogan Hall. Her career retrospective concert Chita Rivera: A lot of Livin’ to Do was presented on PBS’s Great Performances, and her memoir, Chita, was published by HarperOne in April 2023.

In addition to Mordente, she is survived by siblings Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero, along with many nieces and nephews. She is predeceased by her parents and older sister, Carmen.

In a statement from the White House, President Joe Biden said, “Chita Rivera was an all-time-great of American musical theater, a pioneer and perfectionist whose magnetic performances in scores of Broadway productions brought joy to millions and captured the grit and grace of America.

The irrepressible third child of public servants – her mother was a Pentagon clerk and her father a clarinetist in the U.S. Navy Band– she moved to New York to dance at age 15. Over the next seven decades, she built a dazzling career, originating the roles of iconic strong women in classics from West Side Story, to Bye Bye, Birdie, to Chicago, to Kiss of the Spider Woman, while blazing a trail for generations of Latina performers.

Chita won three Tony Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but she never quit putting the work first. She rode highs and lows with fierce resilience, including a devastating car crash that shattered her leg and left her with metal pins in her bones, only to see her climb back to the top and turn in Tony-nominated performances well into her 70s and 80s.

A mesmerizing dancer, singer, and actor, Chita’s work was more than entertainment – it reflects part of who we are as Americans and as human beings, and it has helped shape how we see each other and our world. Chita knew what great Americans know – it’s not how hard you get knocked down, it’s how quickly you get back up. Her dazzling charm will live on in the soul of our nation.

Our love goes out to Chita’s daughter, Lisa; to Chita’s siblings, Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero; and to her generations of fans.”