Legendary theater star Chita Rivera, who originated the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, has reportedly died at the age of 91. According to Deadline, the Tony-winning actress died peacefully in her sleep in New York following a brief illness.
Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero Anderson in Washington, DC, on January 23, 1933, Rivera studied dance as a child at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet before moving to New York City with a scholarship to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. She soon took the theater world by storm, becoming one of Broadway’s biggest, most indelible stars due to her innate dance talent, knockout voice, and acting chops. Rivera became a superstar, creating the role of Anita in Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story in 1957. Two subsequent film adaptations would win actresses who played Anita—Rita Moreno and Ariana DeBose—Oscars.
Rivera earned her first Tony nomination in 1961 for originating the role of Rose in Bye Bye Birdie, opposite Dick Van Dyke; she was nominated again in 1976 for best actress in a musical for originating the role of murderess Velma Kelly in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, opposite Gwen Verdon. Rivera would go on to win two Tonys for best actress in a musical for subsequent Kander and Ebb collaborations, 1984’s The Rink and 1993’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Her other Broadway credits include Jerry’s Girls, Nine, Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Kander and Ebb’s The Visit.
Offstage, Rivera starred as Nickie in the film adaptation of Sweet Charity starring Shirley MacLaine. She also made a cameo in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of Chicago, and appeared in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick… Boom! In her youth, she was a television mainstay, performing on The Judy Garland Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The New Dick Van Dyke Show. She also memorably surprised her Chicago and The Rink costar Liza Minelli on The Dinah Shore Show.
A true trailblazer, Rivera became the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor in 2002. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
She is survived by her daughter Lisa Mordente and siblings Julio, Armando, and Lola del Rivero, and her many nieces and nephews.