Chita Rivera, West Side Story and Broadway legend, dies aged 91

She dazzled audiences for nearly six decades, memorably playing Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago

Chita Rivera, one of Broadway’s most illustrious stars, has died at the age of 91. A consummate “triple-threat” entertainer, she was celebrated for her singing, acting and dancing in classic musicals including West Side Story and Chicago. She won Tony awards for best actress in a musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink and was given a lifetime Tony award in 2018.

A statement was made on Tuesday by her friend and publicist, Merle Frimark, who said: “It is with great sadness that Lisa Mordente, the daughter of Chita Rivera, announces the death of her beloved mother who died peacefully in New York after a brief illness.”

Rivera emerged as a New York theatre sensation in the 1950s and was still centre-stage six decades later, in the 2015 Broadway production The Visit, which reunited her with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. She performed their songs over decades, not just in musicals but also in her own cabaret revues.

Rivera’s father was born in Puerto Rico and her mother had Scottish and Irish heritage. Rivera grew up in Washington DC with four siblings and her father died when she was seven. She briefly considered becoming a nun and said her first encounter with theatre was attending mass, where she was dazzled by the text, the incense and the costumes.


Rivera was an energetic child, later describing herself as the neighbourhood’s “cheetah” as she was always running around and cycling fast. At the age of nine, after breaking a table when causing a rumpus at home, she was sent by her mother to learn ballet in the hope that it would instil some discipline and let her burn off some energy. Rivera recalled how her father’s saxophone and clarinet were sold by her mother to pay for the dance lessons and how she felt a sense of repaying her family’s investment in her throughout her career.

After attending George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, she set her sights on musical theatre. Having started out performing as Conchita del Rivero she shortened her name after being told it was too long for theatre posters. In 1956, she starred in Mr Wonderful with Sammy Davis Jr, with whom she had a relationship.

The following year brought her the role of Anita, one of the Puerto Rican Sharks gang who performs Jerome Robbins’ rousing choreography for America in West Side Story and also shares a duet, A Boy Like That, with Maria in the musical. With music by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story’s spin on Romeo and Juliet was a phenomenon first on Broadway and then in the West End, via Manchester (“I’d never seen so much fog,” remembered Rivera).

By the time it reached London, Rivera had married Tony Mordente – who played a member of the Sharks’ rival gang, the Jets – with whom she had a daughter, Lisa. Rivera and Mordente’s relationship had begun in secret as the actors playing the Sharks and the Jets had been told they shouldn’t socialise, in order to heighten the tension between their characters.

Almost two decades later, Rivera originated another indelible Broadway role – that of the steely vaudevillian Velma Kelly in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. “Velma is not ashamed to go as low as she needs to get as high as she wants,” she later remembered. All That Jazz and Cell Block Tango were among the songs she performed. In 1976 Chicago brought her a second Tony award nomination, 15 years after her first, for Bye Bye Birdie. A sequel to that show, entitled Bring Back Birdie, flopped in 1981.

She looked back at her career in a 2005 revue, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, and in the 2023 book Chita: A Memoir, written with Patrick Pacheco, which notably featured her hell-raising alter ego Dolores (also Rivera’s birth name). She continued to perform small shows, sometimes with her daughter and with her own piano, bass and drums trio.

In 2023 she told the Guardian of her backstage routines on Broadway. “The only time my door would close would be just before I went on and I said my prayers. I would say the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. Then I’d go off to be crazy! ... My prayer was always, ‘Let me say the right words, let me please the audience, let me do a good show.’”

As well as her daughter, Rivera is survived by her siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero. Her older sister Carmen predeceased her. – Guardian