Chita Rivera, Broadway legend who was the first to play Anita in West Side Story and Velma in Chicago – obituary

Chita Rivera, right, as Anita in the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, with Liane Plane, left, as Marguerita (one of the Sharks' girls)
Chita Rivera, right, as Anita in the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, with Liane Plane, left, as Marguerita (one of the Sharks' girls) - Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Chita Rivera, who has died aged 91, was the raven-haired American actress, singer and dancer who created Anita in the 1957 Broadway premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story; she did the same the following year 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 conceived by its director-choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim as a tale of urban gang war in post-war Manhattan based on Romeo and Juliet. Chita Rivera’s sultry and dark-voiced Anita – dubbed by one critic “electric as an eel and so much warmer” – was derived from the Nurse in Shakespeare’s tragedy, advising, consoling and comforting her younger friend Maria, the doomed Puerto Rican heroine who has a passion for Tony, a native-born American.

Among its most sensational moments is Anita’s sardonic delivery of America, a playfully argumentative fast-paced Latin-American number in which the immigrants compare their former lives with life in New York. The homesick Rosalia’s wistful reminiscence of an “island of tropical breezes” contrasts sharply with her friend’s “island of tropic diseases”. The song often stopped the show, thanks to the snappy delivery and dry-humoured acting of the fiery Chita Rivera, who was herself of Puerto Rican descent.

In the 1959 television special  The Revlon Revue: Tiptoe Through TV
In the 1959 television special The Revlon Revue: Tiptoe Through TV - CBS Photo Archive

A different side to the previously sassy and hip-swaying Anita emerges when her brother Bernardo is killed in a gang rumble, and in the powerfully operatic A Boy Like That she implores Maria to “stick to your own kind”. Chita Rivera recalled how she had a masterclass in dramatic singing for that number from Bernstein himself. “After one of my feeble attempts, he said, ‘Chita, your boyfriend’s just been killed. You’ve just found out that your best friend, Maria, has 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 the following month to Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, where Princess Margaret was in the first-night audience. British critics observed how Chita Rivera could not only summon great depths to her singing but was also a tempestuous dancer.

She went on to win further acclaim 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-type character. The following year that too arrived in the West End, with the Telegraph reporting that Chita Rivera “stopped the show”.

Chita Rivera demonstrates her high-kicking skills in Bye Bye Birdie in 1961
Chita Rivera demonstrates her high-kicking skills in Bye Bye Birdie in 1961 - Edwin Sampson/ANL/Shutterstock

Bye Bye Birdie brought the first of 10 Tony Award nominations, another of which was for the sequel, Bring Back Birdie (1981), which closed after only 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 in which a gay window-dresser and a dour Marxist are banged up together in a hellish Latin American prison.

Unusually, Kiss of the Spider Woman opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London rather than on Broadway. Writing in the Telegraph, Charles Spencer was astonished by Chita Rivera’s dexterity 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 just a few months short of her bus pass.”

Previously she had played the ruthless vaudevillian Velma Kelly in the 1920s musical Chicago, another Kander and Ebb show, which opened on Broadway in 1975. When it was revived in London in 1990 she played Velma’s opposite number, Roxie, a role originally played by her friend Gwen Verdon. She also made a rare film appearance in the 2002 Oscar-winning screen version starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger, sucking on a cigarette in a prison-cell cameo. Afterwards she told The Advocate magazine: “I looked like Cher in drag.”

Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero was born into a “very Catholic household” in Washington on January 23 1933, the third of five children. Her Puerto Rican father Pedro played clarinet and saxophone in a US 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 clerk at the Pentagon.

At home Conchita was a lively and restless child, creating chaos by hopping over the furniture. The holy theatre of Sunday Mass almost led her to become a nun, “but then I went and fell through the coffee table”. Her exasperated mother enrolled her in ballet school in the hope that her daughter would burn off some energy and learn a little discipline.

Sent to live with an uncle in the Bronx, she was educated at Taft High School, New York. By 11 she was aiming for 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 at her audition a “tall, blond, gorgeous dancer came running from the audition room screaming, ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’ If she couldn’t, how could I? I was short, brown and nervous as hell, but my teacher told me: ‘Just stay in your own lane and look straight ahead.’ And I got in. One step, one plié, led to another – and, ultimately, Broadway.”

Chita Rivera in 1962 at an awards dinner at the Savoy in London, next to Dudley Moore
Chita Rivera in 1962 at an awards dinner at the Savoy in London, next to Dudley Moore - Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There, she was in the chorus of Call Me Madam (1952), touring the US as principal dancer in the same production with Elaine Stritch. As Broadway’s favourite trouper she enjoyed stints 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 won overnight acclaim for her gutsy performance as Anita in West Side Story.

During the 1980s her career ebbed somewhat. After the failure of Bring Back Birdie she had little more luck as an evil sorceress in the musical Merlin (1983). Two years later her leg was “mangled from the knee down” in a car accident, requiring 12 bolts in the bones.

Yet by the end of the year she was back on Broadway, singing, dancing and acting in Jerry’s Girls, a tribute to the composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, who described her in his memoir as “a real pal to everybody in the business”.

Chita Rivera’s pre-performance rituals included gently closing her 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’d go off to be crazy.” Sumo wrestling was another great passion – she had been introduced to the sport when she took a musical to Japan in the 1980s and fell “head over heels” for a wrestler.

In 2005 she appeared in her own career 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.

CHita Rivera receives her Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009
Chita Rivera receives her Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2009 - Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty

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 unapologetic and fiery, and Conchita, who takes all the glory. She dedicated a chapter to Sammy Davis Jr, with whom she had a romantic relationship after they met on It’s Wonderful early in her career. She also had a relationship in the 1970s with Joe Allen, the restaurateur.

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 kind of like a bad kid deliberately doing something their parents told them not to do,” she told The Daily Telegraph of their cross-cultural union. “But Jerry Robbins loved it. As a matter of fact, 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