Chita Rivera, revered and pioneering Tony-winning dancer and singer, dies at 91

A woman in a red dress poses in front of a backdrop of roses at the Tony Awards
Chita Rivera arrives at the 72nd Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2018.
(Evan Agostini / Invision / Associated Press)

Chita Rivera, the dynamic dancer, singer and actress who garnered 10 Tony nominations, winning twice, in a long Broadway career that forged a path for Latina artists and shrugged off a near-fatal car accident, died Tuesday. She was 91.

Rivera’s death was announced by her daughter, Lisa Mordente, who said she died in New York after a brief illness.

Rivera first gained wide notice in 1957 as Anita in the original production of “West Side Story” and was still dancing on Broadway with her trademark energy a half-century later in 2015’s “The Visit.”


“I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t moving or telling a story to you or singing a song,” she told the Associated Press then. “That’s the spirit of my life, and I’m really so lucky to be able to do what I love, even at this time in my life.”

In August 2009, Rivera was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. can give a civilian. Rivera put her hand over her heart and shook her head in wonderment as President Barack Obama presented the medal. In 2013, she was the marshal at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. In 2002, she was among the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. She won Tony Awards for best actress in a musical for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

In a 2017 interview with L.A. Times contributor Margaret Gray, Rivera explained why, at age 84, she was embarking on a national tour for her one-woman show, “Chita: A Legendary Celebration.” The show centered on her favorite songs and reminiscensces about her career and creative partnerships with legends, including playwright Terrence McNally, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb and choreographer Bob Fosse.

Gray asked Rivera if she ever found it hard to be a Puerto Rican role model, someone who opened doors and gave hope.

“Diversity is such a wonderful thing because we all have so much to offer,” she responded. “I was fortunate enough to get ‘West Side Story.’ I was also lucky enough to play Greek, Italian. Never Scandinavian or pure Caucasian. Well, actually, that’s not true: I did do the very first impersonation of Marilyn Monroe. With a blond wig you can do an awful lot! Which only proves that we’re all very much the same.”