Chita Rivera, right, performing at the 2015 Tony Awards.

West Side Story Legend Dies

Posted by Speakeasy News > Wednesday 31 January 2024 > In the News Shine Bright Lycée

Chita Rivera, a Broadway icon, has died age 91.  Her first major role was originating the character of Anita in the original stage production of West Side Story in 1957.

She was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero  in Washington, D.C., in 1993 to a Puerto Rican father and a mother with Scottish-Irish origins. (Not far from the plot of West Side Story!) As a child, she was considered too energetic and was sent to ballet classes to channel her energy. It worked so well that she won a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet, awarded by legendary choreographer George Balanchine.

At 19, she found her real love: Broadway musicals where she was renowned for being equally talented in dance, singing and acting. In 1957 she was in the original cast of West Side Story, leading the musical's anthem, "America". She said in 2007, "Hearing 'America' was just mind-boggling, with that rhythm. I just couldn't wait to do it. It was such a challenge. And, being Latin, you know, it was a welcoming sound." Because most of the cast playing Puerto Ricans in the stage and 1961 film versions were not of Latino extraction at all, unlike Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake.

Rivera at the Puerto Rican National Day Parade in New York.

Rivera went on to have a long and honoured career, still performing well into her 80s. She also originated Velma in the hit musical Chicago, and played hundreds of other roles, receiving a record 10 nominations for Tonys (Broadway's Oscars) and being awarded three, including a lifetime achievement award. The Tony Awards called her a "Broadway legend ... whose grace, talent and passion left an unforgettable mark on the world of theatre."

She was awarded the U.S.'s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Last year, she released a bestselling memoir about her life and career. She gave CBS the interview about it. It gives a good overview of her career.

Find out more about West Side Story in our Reading Guide for studying the film in class. It will be in shops by mid-February. For ordering information, click here.

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