Broadway legend Chita Rivera was a triple threat, a trailblazer – and a hoot

<span>Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Rex/Shutterstock

Chita Rivera had been answering questions about West Side Story for some 60 years when yet another journalist called her up to hear the story. You could have forgiven this indomitable triple-threat star – celebrated for her singing, acting and dancing – for going through the motions in a 15-minute phone interview. But seconds into what would be the first of a few conversations we had over the years, it was clear she’d be a hoot.

“I love that accent!” she mock-purred with a laugh before recalling the thick Manchester fog when she brought the show over in 1958. She was an anglophile and had happy memories of the show’s London run, where she resumed the role of Anita. She’d recently given birth to Lisa, lovingly described as her “Shark-Jet daughter”: Chita’s husband was Tony Mordente, who played one of the Jets, while Anita was with the Sharks. The gangs had rehearsed separately for the show in order to heighten tensions on stage – “a phenomenal idea” from choreographer Jerome Robbins – so they’d tried to keep their romance secret. She brought a maternal quality to Anita’s friendship with Maria but Rivera loved how saucy and passionate the character is too.

What came through in our conversations was her combination of a deep emotional understanding of her characters and the meticulous technique required to play them. It was on West Side Story that Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim “taught me how to breathe” she said, after Sondheim’s death in 2020. “You can’t sing America without being able to breathe – as a dancer and as a singer.”

She would talk with great precision about how to hit a consonant right while also executing the choreography. Discipline, commitment and determination shone through her memories. We spoke again in 2019, about some of her favourite songs, and she chose two from Chicago. “When Gwen Verdon and I did our duet Nowadays, playing Roxie and Velma, it was a case of two dancing as one,” she said, and although there was a hint of humour she meant it when she added: “I never want to see a picture where either one of us has even a finger out of place performing it!” But accuracy on stage is nothing without feeling and she learned that from Sammy Davis Jr, with whom she had a relationship: “He gave his heart to the audience. I learned not to hold back from Sammy.”

Related: Chita Rivera – a life in pictures

Rivera came from a golden era of musical theatre: successive generations of fans have her original cast recordings, grainy YouTube footage and latterday concert reprisals of the signature songs to piece together what those stage performances must have been like. It was Rita Moreno not Rivera who played Anita in the 1961 West Side Story movie and, while Rivera played the lead in Sweet Charity on a US tour, she just had a supporting role in the 1969 film of the musical. It was a quarter of a century before Chicago was filmed, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, although Rivera was given an attitude-soaked prison-cell cameo which Lin-Manuel Miranda said inspired the astonishing diner scene filled with Broadway legends in his 2021 film Tick, Tick ... Boom! There they all are: Joel Grey, Bernadette Peters and André De Shields with Rivera and a host of younger stars. “It’s exciting to see Mj Rodriguez standing behind Chita Rivera,” said Miranda. “That is generations of Latino excellence.”

But Rivera had a gift for bringing the original productions back to life, decades later, particularly through her memoir, written with Patrick Pacheco. Celebrity memoirs can be all that jazz but hers is a vital chronicle of Broadway’s glory years, carefully recorded down to the smallest detail in a costume. It also introduced her alter ego, Dolores, who reflected her hell-raising side. “Is that Chita or Dolores?” I asked when we spoke for the last time, upon its publication last year. It was Chita, she assured me. Then I heard a mischievous laugh. “But Dolores could pop in at any second.” She was on top form, taking diversions through her love of sumo, Frankenstein and – a constant in our conversations – her daughter.

After news of Rivera’s death broke on Tuesday night, the Tony awards tweeted her acceptance speech from 1984 when she won for the first time (for The Rink), after going home empty-handed on four previous occasions. “I’ve been coming for so many years and losing for so many years and being so happy about it, I decided why buy the bottom of the dress?” she laughed. “Nobody gets to see it.” It’s pure Chita: a hit of charisma, class, glamour and heart.