“Dance in heaven, my friend”: Broadway pioneer Chita Rivera dies at 91, remembered by theater world

Broadway’s Chita Rivera  – star of productions like “West Side Story,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” – has died, her family has confirmed. According to a statement from Rivera’s daughter Lisa Mordente, her mother died Tuesday in New York “after a brief illness,” NBC News reported. Rivera was 91.

In her seven-decade Broadway career, Rivera rose to prominence for her electrifying and scene-stealing breakout performance as the original Anita in the 1957 production of “West Side Story” for which she received critical acclaim. During the production and throughout her career, she worked with theater legends like Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and choreographers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

Born and raised in Washington D.C. in 1933, Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero later auditioned for famed choreographer George Balanchine and moved to New York City to attend the School of American Ballet. In the 1950s, Rivera was one of few Puerto Ricans and Latinas in the theater industry, when lack of diversity and inclusion was one of the theater industry’s glaring  issues. Even now, there is a scarcity of Latino performers in the industry, with only 4.1 percent of Latinos being offered union contracts in the U.S., the Actor Equity Association reported.

However, despite all odds, Rivera began her famed and rich theater career with productions like “Guys and Dolls” and “Can-Can.” Rivera also inhabited roles like Rosie, the girlfriend of a rock star’s manager in “Bye Bye Birdie,” the original Velma and later the ambitious murderess Roxie in “Chicago,” and former showgirl Lilane in “Nine.”

Rivera was said to dazzle in dance-heavy musical numbers like “America” in “West Side Story,” “One Boy” and “Spanish Rose” in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “All That Jazz” in “Chicago.” Critics called her “only the greatest musical-theater dancer ever,” The New York Times reported.

Moreover, Rivera received 10 Tony Award nominations for her extensive roles in theater but won two Tonys for her performances in “The Rink,” “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and received a special lifetime achievement Tony in 2018.  

Reactions to Rivera’s passing

Rivera’s recent passing has shaken the world of theater with the loss of another legend who had helped shatter the glass ceiling.

“Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander – a Tony-winning Broadway star in his own right and friend of Rivera – posted a photo of the pair, writing, “This extraordinary woman, the incomparable. Chita Rivera was one of the greatest spirits and colleagues I’ve ever known. She set the bar in every way. I will cherish her always. Dance in heaven, my friend.”

The account for the musical “Chicago” also honored Rivera, sharing, “We are heartbroken to learn Chita Rivera has passed away at 91. She was the original Velma Kelly and also played Roxie in Toronto, Las Vegas & London. Chita’s influence, warmth, and other-worldly talent will inspire us always. Tonight’s show is for her.”

Outside of her historic contributions to theater, Rivera was also heavily involved in LGBTQ+ and HIV advocacy, partnering with nonprofits like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. GLAAD tweeted on X, “Broadway legend Chita Rivera has sadly passed away at age 91. Rivera spent much of her long career advocating for LGBTQ people and people living with HIV and AIDS. Our hearts go out to everyone who loved her.”

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