Up until her death on Jan. 30 at the age of 91, Chita Rivera was one of the last living icons of Broadway’s golden age, with Broadway credits that spanned 65 years. (Thankfully, her memoir, “Chita,” was published last year.)
What made Rivera particularly special (besides her Latin American roots, exceptional dance abilities and the inimitable boldness and bite she brought to her performances) is that she dedicated her entire life to the theater, starring on Broadway as recently as 2015 and in concert up until her final days.
She appeared in classic musicals, notorious flops, regional theater, and nightclub shows. She even managed to recover after sustaining serious leg injuries in a 1986 car accident and make a smashing comeback as the mysterious Aurora in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Rivera was not reclusive and often appeared at public events (including a rally in Times Square in 2021 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Broadway shutdown due to COVID) and was a source of support and pride for dancers and minority performers. On social media, Lin-Manuel Miranda called her “the trailblazer for PR (Puerto Rico) on Broadway.”
Two of the musicals I first became infatuated with as a teen were “West Side Story” and “Bye Bye Birdie.” While Rivera was robbed of the opportunity to play Anita and Rosie in the film versions, her performances live on in the original cast recordings. (If you look around on YouTube, you can find some television appearances related to “Birdie,” including footage of her singing “Spanish Rose” on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and recreating the “Shriner’s Ballet” during a 1980s television special.)
I first saw Rivera perform in person in 2000 at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where she was playing Reno Sweeney in “Anything Goes.” Did it matter that Rivera was considerably older than her co-stars, including her character’s love interest? Not in the slightest.
During the 21st century, Rivera appeared on Broadway in revivals of “Nine” (raising her leg onto the shoulder of Antonio Banderas during a show-stopping tango) and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (leading an audience singalong as the drug-dealing Princess Puffer), “Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life” (an elaborate career retrospective), and “The Visit,” a dark 2015 musical in which, at the age of 82, Rivera played a rich widow who demands the murder of the man who wronged her long ago.
It is unfortunate that Rivera (who famously originated the role of Velma in the original Broadway production of “Chicago” in the 1970s) never joined the long-running Broadway revival as either Roxie or Matron Mama Matron. However, Rivera did take part in the revival’s one-night 10th anniversary performance, leading “All That Jazz” alongside the revival cast.
There probably cannot be another Chita Rivera – someone whose dance and musical theater work is so significant that she becomes a household name and receives a Kennedy Center Honor and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Indeed, Rivera personified the glamour, guts, and glory of the golden age of Broadway. Her memory will live on in new productions of the musicals she is associated with, the Chita Rivera Awards (which recognize excellence in dance), and new generations of performers who are inspired by her success and work ethic.