Beloved musical theatre icon Chita Rivera passed away on January 30, 2024, just one week after celebrating her 91st birthday. In a magnificent theatre career spanning over seven decades, Chita Rivera wowed Broadway audiences in show after show, always maintaining the highest level of craft and professionalism. Though she achieved Broadway superstardom, Chita never forgot her roots as a hardworking member of the ensemble.
Chita earned 10 Tony nominations, the record for a performer (currently shared with Julie Harris and Audra McDonald). She won twice, for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Among her many accolades, she was a Kennedy Center Honoree and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
At Concord Theatricals, Chita holds a special place in our hearts. She illuminated so many of our shows with her unique talent and charisma. So, here, we honor the one and only Chita Rivera with a brief look at some highlights of her musical theatre career.
1951: Principal Dancer in Call Me Madam
At age 18, Conchita Del Rivero accompanied her friend to an open call for the national tour of Call Me Madam, and she wound up earning a spot herself. Billed as a “Principal Dancer,” she cut her teeth on the road supporting another Broadway icon, Elaine Stritch, who had replaced Ethel Merman in the lead role.
1952: Ensemble Role in Guys and Dolls
When the Call Me Madam tour ended, Conchita made her Broadway debut as a replacement in the ensemble of Frank Loesser’s hit show.
1953: Ensemble Role in Can-Can
Soon thereafter, she joined the ensemble of Cole Porter and Abe Burrows’ “magnifique” musical set in late 19th-century Paris, where she undoubtedly thrilled audiences with the ease and grace of her high kicks.
1955-57: Ensemble & Featured Roles
Redubbing herself Chita Rivera, the young dancer continued to shine in the cast of several Broadway musicals, including Seventh Heaven (1955), Mr. Wonderful starring Sammy Davis, Jr. (1956) and Shinbone Alley (1957).
1957: Anita in West Side Story
Suddenly, Chita catapulted from anonymity to Broadway stardom, thanks to her showstopping performance as Anita in West Side Story (1957). Through a powerful but nuanced performance, Chita proved that she was more than a dancer; she was also an incredible singer and a formidable actress.
1960: Rose Grant/Alvarez in Bye Bye Birdie
Opposite leading man Dick Van Dyke, Chita made musical theatre magic as strong-willed Rosie, the plucky problem-solver who’d rather settle down in suburbia than manage teen heartthrob Conrad Birdie. The bubblegum 50s satire was originally written for Van Dyke and costar Carol Haney, who was to play “Rose Grant” as a Polish American character. But Haney was unavailable, and the first proposed replacement, Eydie Gormé, lost her voice, so Chita was cast. The creators tailored the role to Chita’s talents, eventually renaming the character “Rose Alvarez.” Chita’s biggest dance number was the “Shriner’s Ballet,” which she recreated in a 1982 performance.
1964: Anyanka in Bajour
After the lighthearted Birdie, Chita pivoted to star as a crafty con woman in this musical dramedy about Romani residents of New York and Newark.
1967: Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity (tour)
1969: Nickie in Sweet Charity (film)
Though she never appeared in the Broadway production of this Neil Simon/Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical comedy, Chita took on the title role in the national tour, belting out “If They Could See Me Now” and wowing audiences with Bob Fosse’s signature choreography. For the film version, she played Charity’s pal Nickie, who – along with Shirley MacLaine as Charity and Paula Kelly as Helene – insists that “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”
1969: Leader in Zorba! (tour)
Switching gears after the groovy and ebullient Sweet Charity, Chita returned to musical drama as the Leader, the earthy, pragmatic narrator of this stage adaptation of Zorba the Greek. In contrast to the carefree Zorba, the Leader is blunt and practical – we can only imagine how powerful Chita was as she opened the show by singing, “Life is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”
1975: Velma Kelly in Chicago
Chita reunited with director/choreographer Bob Fosse to originate the role of tough dame Velma Kelly in this powerhouse Broadway hit. Opposite the inimitable Gwen Verdon, Chita once again made musical theatre history, earning a Tony nomination and introducing songs like “All That Jazz,” “My Own Best Friend” and “Nowadays.”
1981: Rose Alvarez Peterson in Bring Back Birdie
Returning to the role of Rosie Alvarez, this time opposite Donald O’Connor as Albert, Chita led the company of this short-lived sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, set 20 years later. Now happily married with children, Rosie and Albert suddenly find themselves on the hunt for the elusive, middled-aged Conrad Birdie. Though the show only played four performances, Chita still managed to shine, particularly in her first number, “Twenty Happy Years,” and in the showstopping dance number “Well, I’m Not!”
1983: The Queen in Merlin
In a turn towards the campy, Chita played Nathan Lane’s scheming mother in this fantastical musical vehicle for the illusionist Doug Henning. Though the show was not successful, Frank Rich wrote, “Miss Rivera works like a demon, by the way, and looks quite funny in red and copper lamé insect wings.”
1984: Anna in The Rink
Chita earned the 1984 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her dynamic portrayal of Anna, the world-weary Italian American owner of a declining Coney Island roller-skating rink in this Kander & Ebb show. Sharing the stage with Liza Minnelli, who played her daughter Angel, Chita seemed to be having the time of her life – check out her lusty laugh as she and Liza crack each other up in the duet “The Apple Doesn’t Fall (Very Far from the Tree).”
1985: Co-Star in Jerry’s Girls
Sharing the stage with Dorothy Loudon, Leslie Uggams and an all-female ensemble, Chita earned her sixth Tony nomination in this musical revue of Jerry Herman tunes.
1993: The Spider Woman in Kiss of the Spider Woman
Returning to Broadway after an eight-year absence, Chita blew audiences away with her sultry, menacing performance in the title role of this Kander & Ebb/Terrence McNally musical based on the celebrated Manuel Puig novel. With strength, style and an air of mystery, she lit up the stage in numbers like “Where You Are,” earning the 1993 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.
2003: Liliane La Fleur in Nine
Ten years later, at age 70, Chita proved she was still in top form, belting “Folies Bergères” and dancing a passionate tango with star Antonio Banderas in the 2003 Broadway revival of Nine, Maury Yeston’s musical adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8½.
2003 Roundabout Theatre Company production of Nine (Joan Marcus)
2005: Star of Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life
At age 72, Chita took Broadway by storm once again, this time in a tour de force performance featuring candid stories, new material and over two dozen musical numbers from her illustrious career.
2012: The Princess Puffer in The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Chita hid her trademark black locks under a curly amber wig to portray the Princess Puffer, a purveyor of opium who might be a murderess, in Rupert Holmes’ playful musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens mystery.
2012 Roundabout Theatre Company production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Joan Marcus)
2015: Claire Zachannassian in The Visit
Chita’s final appearance on Broadway was, appropriately, in a new musical featuring a Kander & Ebb score. Chita played Claire Zachannassian, an obscenely wealthy woman who returned to her struggling hometown, offering financial salvation in exchange for the life of the man who had abandoned her years before.
Thanks to her unique talent, unbounded energy and tireless work ethic, Chita Rivera earned her place as a superstar of the American musical theatre. She raised the bar for Broadway performers by always being a true triple threat: a powerful singer with an expressive, guttural voice, an unparalleled dancer whose perfectly placed movement could shift from graceful to jagged to grand, and a commanding actress who brought depth and texture to every role. And somehow, she made it all look so easy.
Above all, Chita will be remembered for her great love of show business and her dedication to show people. She was one of a kind, and she will be missed.