Whether playing the ball of fire Anita in West Side Story or the secretary Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie or the diva Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chita Rivera has made her mark as a singer, dancer, consummate performer, and Broadway legend.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1933, she began ballet lessons in 1944 and successfully auditioned for George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet at age fifteen. There her teachers included Edward Villella, Allegra Kent, and Maria Tallchief. But a couple of years into her ballet studies she landed a part in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam, then going on a national tour, and turned her attention to musical theater, where she flourished gloriously.
Soon there followed Broadway performances in Can-Can (as a replacement for one of the dancers) and Seventh Heaven (1955) – starring Gloria DeHaven and Ricardo Montalban, with Rivera in a bit part. She moved to center stage in her next Broadway role, playing Rita Romano in Mr. Wonderful (1956), opposite Sammy Davis Jr., whose talents the show highlighted. In Shinbone Alley (1957) she was a standby for the female lead (played by Eartha Kitt) in a musical after Don Marquis’s popular archy and mehitabel.
But it was in the Bernstein classic West Side Story (1957) that Rivera made her first big splash as one of the Sharks’ girls. Rivera as Anita (joined by Marilyn Cooper as Rosalia) introduced the famous duet “America” and wowed audiences with her lithe movements. In 1960, Rivera starred in Bye Bye Birdie, playing opposite Dick Van Dyke. The show won multiple Tonys®, and Rivera – playing the Latina secretary whom the leading male dumps and then returns to with renewed respect – earned a nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. In London she reprised the role for the West End production.
In 1964 she again had a leading role on Broadway, playing the beautiful but deceitful Anyanka in Bajour, a musical based on Joseph Mitchell’s stories about Gypsies in the New York area. Her next starring role was Velma Kelly – the cabaret siren who murders her husband and sister after finding them in flagrante – in the original Broadway production of Chicago (1974), playing opposite Jerry Orbach. Rivera scored another Tony® nomination for her performance.
A short-lived sequel to Bye Bye Birdie entitled Bring Back Birdie (1981) found Rivera starring as Rose again, for which she received Tony® and Drama Desk nominations. She starred as the Queen in the sorcery musical Merlin (1983) and as Anna in The Rink (1984), opposite Liza Minnelli and Jason Alexander, winning the Tony® for Best Actress in a Musical. In 1985 she performed in the revue Jerry’s Girls, based on songs by Jerry Herman, and scored another Tony® nomination. And in 1993 she gave her Tony®-winning performance as Aurora (Spider Woman) in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She also earned Tony® nominations for her performances in Nine (2003) and Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life (2005).
Her television and film credits include The Outer Limits, Sweet Charity, Kojak, Once upon a Brothers Grimm, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pippin, Mayflower Madam, Stonewall 25: Voices of Pride and Protest, and Chicago.