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Broadway legend Chita Rivera dead at 91

Chita Rivera became a Broadway legend over her long and storied career (KENA BETANCUR)
Chita Rivera became a Broadway legend over her long and storied career (KENA BETANCUR)

Chita Rivera, who electrified Broadway stages over six decades in shows including "West Side Story" and "Chicago" as one of the foremost entertainers of her generation, died Tuesday at age 91, her publicist said.

Rivera -- a singer, dancer and actress -- died in New York after a "brief illness," her daughter Lisa Mordente said in a statement released by publicist Merle Frimark.

Trained in voice, piano and ballet from a young age, Rivera was dancing on Broadway before she was 20 and kept at it all the way into her early 80s.

Rivera became one of the most nominated actors in the history of the Tony Awards, Broadway's highest prizes, with 10 nods.

In 2002 she earned Kennedy Center honors -- a top US arts distinction -- and was feted at the White House in 2009 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sensual and with a brassy stage presence, Rivera played some of Broadway's most acclaimed roles, and worked under legendary talents including Leonard Bernstein, Bob Fosse, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins.

She and fellow actress Rita Moreno paved the way for other stars of Puerto Rican descent, such as actor-songwriter-playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda of "Hamilton" fame, to conquer Broadway.

"The trailblazer for PR on Broadway," Miranda wrote of Rivera on Instagram Tuesday. "She IS magnificent, not ready for the past tense just yet."

Rivera earned the 1957 breakout role of Anita in "West Side Story," the 20th century American adaptation of the Shakespeare tale "Romeo and Juliet," which made her a star and earned her a first Tony nomination.

But when the film was made, the role of Anita went to Moreno. It was the first but not the last time a major Hollywood role would elude Rivera after she lit up the stage in the same part.

- Broadway glory -

Born at the height of the Great Depression on January 23, 1933 in the US capital Washington, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was one of five children of a Catholic couple.

Her father, a US Navy musician, died when she was seven.

At age 11 she enrolled in a local ballet school, and at 16 auditioned for the renowned School of American Ballet run by George Balanchine and traveled to New York City after winning a scholarship.

After three years of training, Rivera sought small Broadway roles as a dancer.

Seeking to downplay her ethnicity, she changed her name to Chita O'Hara, before eventually settling on Chita Rivera.

Still, she often felt out of place, recalling in her 2023 book "Chita: A Memoir" what she saw around her at an early audition: "Standing next to me... were leggy, busty blondes in body-revealing dresses with slashes of red lipstick highlighting their pretty faces.

"And here was I, short, dark, dressed in a black skirt and leotards, and with a nose like 'a chicken's butt.'"

But a fierce determination saw her through, along with an audacious attempt to branch into singing parts.

After "West Side Story," Rivera won the lead part of Rose in "Bye Bye, Birdie," starring opposite Dick van Dyke in the captivating musical.

But when it came time for a film version, she was passed over once again by Hollywood, with Janet Leigh of "Psycho" fame getting the call to play Rose.

In 1975, Rivera starred as Velma Kelly in "Chicago" opposite Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in the musical directed by legendary Bob Fosse. She would later make a cameo in the 2002 film version.

"Chita's influence, warmth, and other-worldly talent will inspire us always. Tonight's show is for her," said the official social media account for the latest Broadway revival of "Chicago."

- 'Spider Woman' -

Rivera never held any overt grudges over such slights, always returning to Broadway in new roles.

She married a fellow dancer from "West Side Story," Tony Mordente, in 1957. Their daughter Lisa was born before the marriage ended in divorce in 1966.

In her memoir, Rivera recounted how during the run of the musical "Mr. Wonderful," she had an affair with costar Sammy Davis Jr.

Her other notable shows included "Sweet Charity," "The Rink," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (for which she won a Tony in 1993) and a 2003 Broadway revival of "Nine," in which she co-starred alongside Antonio Banderas.

Rivera won a Tony for lifetime achievement in 2018.

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