Chita Rivera obituary

<span>Photograph: Granger/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Granger/Shutterstock

Known for her dynamic personality and prodigious physical energy, Chita Rivera, who has died aged 91, created the role of Anita in West Side Story in 1957. As the heroine Maria’s friend in arguably the best musical of the 20th century, Rivera tore up the stage in the ensemble dance number America, a stunning musical expression of minority group aspiration, and sang memorable harmony lines in Tonight and I Have a Love.

Starting out as a principal dancer in New York revue, Rivera first made waves doing a calypso can-can in 1955 (alongside Gloria DeHaven and Bea Arthur) and later co-starred with Sammy Davis Jr, Dick Van Dyke, Gwen Verdon, Donald O’Connor and Liza Minnelli. She was as loved in London as she was in New York, first appearing in the capital in the West End premiere of West Side Story (1958), returning to Her Majesty’s in 1961 in Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Michael Stewart’s Bye Bye Birdie (Marty Wilde took the role of an Elvis-style pop star drafted into the armed forces) and, sensationally, as the dream-spinning Aurora, screen idol and symbol of death, in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Shaftesbury in 1992.

When she brought her solo show to the Shaw theatre in London 2008, she was no less graceful, fiery or technically perfect than she had been 40 years earlier. And she still kicked her heels way over her ears.

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

Vivacious, pugnacious and bright-eyed, at 5ft 3in tall, she gave a rendition of Jacques Brel’s fiendish Carousel that was simply incredible and honoured her Broadway roots in a string of show-stoppers including Nowadays from Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, having created the role of Velma Kelly on Broadway in 1975.

Born in Washington DC, she was one of five children of Pedro Figueroa del Rivero, a Puerto Rican clarinettist in the US navy band who died when Chita was seven, and his wife, Katherine (nee Anderson), a government official.

Chita won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York, where she also attended William Howard Taft high school, lodging with family in the Bronx. On graduating in 1951, she toured as a principal dancer in Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam (with Elaine Stritch in the Ethel Merman role of “the hostess with the mostest”) before making her Broadway debut in 1953 in Guys and Dolls, followed by an off-Broadway lead role in Ben Bagley’s Shoestring Revue in 1955.

In the same year she stole the notices in the musical comedy Seventh Heaven and in 1956 joined Davis in Mr Wonderful with music and lyrics by Jerry Bock; one critic described her as “a real cute chick with rolling eyes and sinuous hips”.

Despite the triumph of West Side Story, although the Anita role went to Rita Moreno for the 1961 film version of the musical; Rivera exploited this muddle over Chita and Rita in one of her cabaret songs. In the same year Bye Bye Birdie – one of the first musicals about the rock’n’roll era – flopped in London. Rivera then resumed her dedication to touring in the US, with road revivals of Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity in 1967, succeeding her friend Verdon as Hope Charity, the New York taxi dancer with a heart as big as the Bronx; and Kander and Ebb’s Zorbá in 1969.

Bring Back Birdie (1981) with O’Connor was a disastrous sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, and a veil is best drawn over the illusionist Doug Henning’s Merlin (1983), in which she was unkindly cast as a rancorous old witch.

She was unlucky, too, in her next Kander and Ebb Broadway vehicle, The Rink (1984), at the Martin Beck, in which she played Minnelli’s mother (The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far from the Tree was the best song) in a sentimental lament for a closing roller rink. Minnelli was enduring one of her “unpredictable” periods, and I saw her only understudy, Lenora Nemetz, though an ageless Rivera was on devastating form.

They say “break a leg” for good luck on Broadway, but Rivera’s luck ran out when she was involved in a nasty car accident in Manhattan while appearing in a Jerry Herman tribute show, Jerry’s Girls (1985). She broke her leg in 12 places, but made an amazing recovery through years of pain and physiotherapy.

Kiss of the Spider Woman marked a triumphant comeback, and she went on to tango with Antonio Banderas in a 2003 Broadway revival of Nine, directed by David Leveaux, and headline her own show, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005).

For some years she worked with Kander and Ebb, and playwright Terrence McNally, on a musical version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. The show was tried out in Chicago in 2001, again in Washington in 2008 and, when seen in a revamped, truncated form at Roger Rees’s Williamstown Theatre festival in the summer of 2014, her performance as Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, was hailed in Variety as “a lioness in winter … magisterial, cunning and absolutely frozen in her mission” of seeking a life in exchange for her millions.

“I’m unkillable!” she exclaimed. And indestructible, too, for more than 60 years on the boards. In 2009, in her home town of Washington, President Barack Obama awarded her the presidential medal of freedom.

Rivera returned to Broadway in The Visit opening at the Lyceum Theatre for a three-month run in March 2015. She was nominated for a Tony award and a Drama Desk award. In 2017, the Astaire Awards were rebranded The Chita Rivera Awards for Dance and Choreography. The following year, she received a special Tony award for lifetime achievement.

She had a cameo in the 2021 film musical and tribute to Jonathan Larson, Tick, Tick … Boom!, and her autobiography, Chita: A Memoir, co-written with Patrick Pacheco, was published in 2023.

In 1957 she married a fellow dancer in West Side Story, Tony Mordente; they divorced in 1966.

The London opening of the show was delayed so she could give birth to their daughter, Lisa, who survives her, along with her siblings Julio, Armando and Lola. Her sister Carmen predeceased her.

• Chita Rivera (Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero), actor and dancer, born 23 January 1933; died 30 January 2024