Chita Rivera, the legendary triple threat of Broadway, passes away at the age of 91

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Chita Rivera, the renowned Broadway actress who graced the stage in more than 20 musicals throughout her illustrious six-decade career, has passed away at the age of 91, as confirmed by her daughter, Lisa Mordente. Rivera, a three-time Tony Award winner, left an indelible mark on Broadway with her unforgettable portrayals of iconic characters such as Anita in West Side Story, Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

Described as the epitome of what Broadway represents, Laurence Maslon, co-producer of the 2004 PBS series Broadway: The American Musical, praises Rivera’s immense talent and captivating presence that captivated audiences for decades. Once you witnessed her brilliance on stage, she remained etched in your memory forever.

Contrary to popular belief, Chita Rivera did not start her journey as a Broadway prodigy. Born as Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in Washington, D.C., she revealed during an interview with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation that she was actually a tomboy who drove her mother to the brink of madness. In an effort to channel her boundless energy, her mother enrolled her in ballet classes, a decision for which Rivera expressed immense gratitude.

Rivera’s passion for ballet was so profound that she earned a full scholarship to the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York. However, fate had other plans for her when she accompanied a friend to an audition for the touring production of Call Me Madam. To her surprise, Rivera landed the role, bidding farewell to ballet and embracing the world of Broadway. It was in 1957 that she achieved her breakthrough moment as Anita in West Side Story, a musical with a score composed by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

Reflecting on her experience with West Side Story during a 2007 interview with NPR, Rivera expressed her awe at the rhythmic beauty of the song “America” and her eagerness to take on the challenge. As a Latina performer, the music resonated deeply with her, creating a sense of belonging and familiarity.

West Side Story not only showcased Rivera’s exceptional dancing abilities but also highlighted her prowess in acting and singing. She fondly remembers Leonard Bernstein personally teaching her the score, including the daunting “A Boy Like That,” initially doubting her ability to hit the high notes. However, with guidance and determination, she conquered the challenge and delivered a remarkable performance.

However, she did strike them, and possessing the ability to sing, act, and dance made her an invaluable asset to Broadway, according to Maslon. “She was the original triple threat. Broadway directors such as Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse recognized the necessity of having performers who could excel in all three areas.”

From 1960 to 2013, she headlined numerous successful productions, as well as some notable failures. In 1986, Rivera experienced a severe taxi accident that left her left leg shattered. Doctors believed she would never dance again, but she proved them wrong, albeit in a different manner.
“We must all be realistic,” she shared with NPR in 2005. “I no longer perform flying splits or backflips and all the things I used to do. And you know what? I don’t want to.”

Nevertheless, her fame never waned. She received numerous accolades, including multiple Tony Awards, a lifetime achievement award, a Kennedy Center honor, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rivera did not venture much into television or film; her unwavering dedication was to the stage, as Maslon explains.
“That’s why they are revered as Broadway legends,” he states. “Ideally, you have the opportunity to witness their brilliance live, as you will never experience it in any other form quite the same way.”

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