When it comes to longevity, Chita Rivera has the edge. Time has treated her well. In her late eighties, she is a bona fide Broadway icon that can still pull off high kick sin her 2005 Broadway retrospective. Rivera has performed a lead role in a major Broadway musical for every decade since the 1950s. This Latina American marvel is best known for her energetic performances, and throughout the years, she has retained her boundless zest.
Rivera had ten Tony nominations with two wins under her name and became the first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. She is best known for her roles in West Side Story, Chicago, Bye Bye Birdie, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Chita Rivera was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa delRivero in Washington, D.C., on January 23, 1933. She’s the daughter of Katherine Anderson, a government clerk, and Pedro Julio Figueroa delRivero, a clarinet and saxophone player. Her father, a Puerto Rican, died when she was just seven years old. After being widowed, her mother went on to work at the Pentagon.
In 1944, her mother enrolled her in the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. Later on, a teacher from George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet visited their studio, and Rivera was one of the two students chosen to audition in New York City. Her audition was successful, and she attended the school on a scholarship.
In 1951, Rivera accompanied a friend to the audition for the touring company of Call Me Madam but ended up being cast herself. She then worked on Broadway as a replacement chorus member in Guys and Dolls (1951), and Can-Can (1953) and its national tour. In 1955, she opened a show off-Broadway in Shoestring Revue, which ran 96 performances. After three months, she made her Broadway debut as a featured performer in the musical Seventh Heaven. Her first successful Broadway musical was Mr. Wonderful (1956), which ran 383 performances.
1957 was her year – she was cast in a role destined to make her a Broadway star, the role of firebrand Anita in West Side Story. This same role would later bring fame to a fellow Puerto Rican, Rita Moreno, who was cast in the 1961 film version. He also married actor/singer Tony Mordente in 1957, who also appeared in West Side Story. Rivera reprised her role in the London production of the West Side Story that opened in December 1958. She enjoyed another Broadway hit with Bye Bye Birdie (1960), starring opposite Dick Van Dyke. After two big hits, Rivera appeared on her next show, Zenda (1963) and Bajour (1964).
Rivera hit a singles deal with Dot Records and toured in shows for some shows until the early ‘70s. She returned to Broadway to make her third major hit, Chicago (1975), co-starring with Gwen Verdon. She also starred in a sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, Bring Back Birdie (1981), which managed a mere four Broadway performances. Another failure was Merlin (1983), which went unrecorded and ran for only 1999 performances on Broadway.
In 1984, she starred in In The Rink, playing the mother of Liza Minnelli’s character, and earned a Tony Award. Rivera was seriously injured in a car accident in 1985 but recovered in time to open in the revue of Jerry’s Girls. She then spent the rest of the 80’s touring and performing in nightclubs.
Her fourth major success in a musical happened in 1992 through Kiss of the Spider Woman, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. It runs for 906 performances, and she won her second Tony Award. After the Kiss of the Spider Woman tour, she performed in a show called Broadway Legends and in a club act “Chita All that Jazz.”
She appeared in a supporting role in a revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine (2003), which ran for 283 performances. In 2005, she starred in her own Broadway show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005), and then took it on tour. In 2008, she appeared in the production of The Visit, a play with songs from Kander and Ebb. Other notable credits include the Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (2012), Ring Them Bells! A Kander& Ebb Celebration (2013), and Chita: A Legendary Celebration (2013).
Film and Television Career
Rivera appeared in children’s television, where she participated on the TV soundtrack albums of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, and Johnny and the Sprites. She also lent her voice at an episode of Dora The Explorer (2004) as The Witch. She also starred in Once Upon a Brothers Grimm (1977), Pippin: His Life and Times (1981), and Mayflower Madam (1987).
Rivera rarely appeared in the film – most of her appearance is in documentaries, including He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’ (1983), Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (2003), Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (2012), Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky (2012), Ben Vereen: The Last of the Showmen (2012), and Move (2012).
She had a cameo appearance in the film version of Chicago (2002) as a woman in jail. She also made an appearance in a feature film Kalamazoo? in 2006.
Chita Rivera has been nominated for the Tony Award ten times, as either Best Actress in a Musical or Best Actress in a Musical. She holds the record for most individual Tony Award nominations, which she shares with Julie Harris.
- Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1984) – The Rink
- Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Drama Desk Award (1984) – The Rink
- Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Tony Award (1993) – Kiss of the Spider Woman
- Outstanding Actress in a Musical, Drama Desk Award (1993) – Kiss of the Spider Woman
- Kennedy Center Honors (2002)
- Distinguished Performance – Drama League Award (2015) – The Visit
- John Willis Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, Theatre World Award (2015)
- Lifetime Achievement in Theatre, Tony Awards (2018)