January 23, 1933– Chita Rivera:
“Many of the shows I danced in don’t exist on film, but they do exist in the memories of those who were in the theater for that single moment in time. And nothing can replace that.”
The Husband & I caught the Bob Fosse directed film version of Sweet Charity (1969) on television recently, which prompted a discussion about dancer/singer/actor Chita Rivera’s career. The Husband commented that her unusual beauty is too angular and too sharp for the camera, and this is the reason she lost out the movie versions of the roles she created on Broadway. Rivera originated 2 roles on Broadway which would later win Oscars for the actors playing them in the film versions: Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961) and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago (2002).
Rivera has performed on Broadway, Off-Broadway, London’s West End, around the globe, on television and occasionally on film. She has won 2 Tony Awards, with 8 more Tony Award nominations to her credit (Rivera and Julie Harris are the most nominated performers in the history of the Tony Awards).
She was born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, the daughter of musician Pedro del Rivero and Katherine Anderson. She began taking ballet class in Washington D.C. when she was 11 years old. When her family relocated to NYC, she was offered a scholarship to The School Of American Ballet after auditioning for choreographer George Balanchine. When she was 17 years old, Rivera accompanied a friend to an audition for the chorus of the national tour of Call Me Madam and ended up being cast. The rest is show biz history.
In 1953, Rivera is cast as a principal dancer in her first Broadway musical, Guys and Dolls. The next year she got a job in the Cole Porter musical Can-Can with choreography by Michael Kidd. It was there that she first met Gwen Verdon, the star of the show. The two hoofers became BFFs and they would eventually work together on 2 landmark musicals.
Her first major Broadway role was opposite Sammy Davis Jr. in Mr. Wonderful (1956). But, Rivera became a legend playing Anita in 1957 with West Side Story. One of the greatest achivements in theatre history, the show was the creation of a group of genius gay men: Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story also gave Rivera a marriage to cast member Tony Mordente and a daughter in 1958. Rivera reprised her role in the London production, which was delayed a year so she could give birth.
She charmed Broadway again as Rose in Bye Bye Birdie (1960) opposite Dick Van Dyke with Gower Champion as director/choreographer, again joining the original cast in the London production in 1961. Again, Hollywood cast someone else when it came time for the film version, this time losing the role to Janet Leigh, wearing Max Factor Egyptian #9 to appear Latina.
Rivera worked continually in her 30s, doing Broadway Musicals and major tours: Bajour (1965) and The Threepenny Opera (1966), Sweet Charity (1967), Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well and Living In Paris (1970), and as Velma Kelly in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago (1975) with pal Verdon.
Rivera won her first Tony Award for The Rink (1984) playing opposite Liza Minnelli.
In April 1986, while starring in the revue of gay songwriter Jerry Herman tunes, Jerry’s Girls, Rivera suffered a severe injury from a car accident, breaking her left leg. But, she returned triumphant in Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1993) at 60 years old. She won a second Tony Award and the musical ran for 3 seasons.
In 1999: Rivera played in Chicago again, switching roles to play Roxie Hart in Las Vegas and London.
At 70 years old, Rivera was nominated for another Tony for her performance in a Broadway revival of Nine (2003) with Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, and Mary Stuart Masterson.
On her 80th birthday in 2013, Rivera celebrated by doing the matinee and the evening performance of the musical The Mystery Of Edwin Drood on Broadway. Rivera returned to Broadway in 2013, as the star of The Visit, the final musical written by John Kander and Fred Ebb and Terrence McNally, co-starring the late, great gay actor Roger Rees in his final role.
Along with those Tony Awards in her trophy case, Rivera has received The Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. As he was presenting her medal, President Obama quipped:
“Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero knows the adversity that comes with a difficult name.”
She is the first Hispanic ever to win the Kennedy Center Honor (2002).
I have never met her, but I saw the original production of Chicago 5 times, that’s how much I love Chita Rivera. She is a Musical Theatre Legend and a true Gay Icon.