The American musical theatre and film star Chita Rivera has died in New York. She was 91.

After making her Broadway debut as a dancer in Guys and Dolls (1950), Rivera went on to originate several iconic Broadway roles: Anita in West Side Story (1957), Rose in Bye Bye Birdy (1960), Velma Kelly in Chicago (1975) and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993).

She was a 10-time Tony Award nominee, winning two for Best Actress in a Musical for her roles in The Rink (1984) and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Rivera also received numerous other accolades including two Drama Desk Awards and a Drama League Award. She was the first Latino-American to receive a Kennedy Centre Honour in 2002, and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. She won the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2018.

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1933, her Puerto Rican father was a reeds player in a U.S. Navy Band. Rivera was seven years old when her father died and her mother went to work at The Pentagon. After studying dance in local academies from 1944, Rivera succeeded in a scholarship audition and was accepted into New York’s prestigious Jones-Haywood School.

Famously, in 1951, Rivera accompanied a friend to the audition for the touring company of Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stritch and ended up winning the role herself. She followed this by landing roles in other Broadway productions such as Guys and Dolls, Can-Can, Mr. Wonderful (starring Sammy Davis, Jr.), and Seventh Heaven.

In 1957, she was cast as Anita in West Side Story, the role which would make her a Broadway star.

Chita Rivera in West Side Story, 1957. Photo © Fred Fehl / New York Public Library

Rivera went on to star in Sweet Charity directed by Bob Fosse (she played the role of Nickie in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine) and became familiar to American TV audiences through her appearances on top-rating programs such as The Carol Burnett Show and The New Dick Van Dyke Show.

In 1975, Rivera was nominated for a Tony Award for co-starring as Velma Kelly opposite Gwen Verdon in the original cast of the musical Chicago. She also starred in another Kander and Ebb musical, The Rink in 1984, winning her first Tony and Drama Desk awards for her role as Anna.

A traffic accident in 1988 nearly ended her career (her leg was crushed, broken in 12 places) but after rehabilitation, Rivera returned to the stage, touring America in the musical Can-Can.

In 1993, Rivera received Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her dual portrayal of Aurora and Spider Woman in the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman. She later co-starred in the London revival of Chicago, this time in the role of Roxie Hart. In 2003, Rivera returned to Broadway in the revival of Nine as Liliane La Fleur and received her eighth career Tony Award nomination (Best Featured Actress in a Musical) and fourth Drama Desk Award nomination (Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical).

Rivera toured to Australia, most recently in 2006 (in Chita Rivera! Down Under) and in 2011, aged 78, in her hits-and-anecdotes show, My Broadway.

Rivera died in New York after a brief illness on 30 January, 2024.

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