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Chita Rivera

Legend Synonymous with Broadway … A Tribute

By:  Ellis Nassour

January 31, 2024: Long after many other performers of a certain age had disappeared from the scene, Broadway’s former Queen of the Gypsies, Chita Rivera, a.k.a. Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, like the Battery Bunny was still going, going, going. In fact, it seemed for the longest time, in spite of great obstacles and huge challenges, she showed no signs of stopping. The indefatigable Chita Rivera was synonymous with Broadway throughout her seven-decade career in show business. She was a gleaming star, a national treasure, and a trailblazer as an Hispanic star on Broadway. 

Chita Rivera 2018

Legend Synonymous with Broadway … A Tribute

By:  Ellis Nassour

January 31, 2024: Long after many other performers of a certain age had disappeared from the scene, Broadway’s former Queen of the Gypsies, Chita Rivera, a.k.a. Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero, like the Battery Bunny was still going, going, going. In fact, it seemed for the longest time, in spite of great obstacles and huge challenges, she showed no signs of stopping. The indefatigable Chita Rivera was synonymous with Broadway throughout her seven-decade career in show business. She was a gleaming star, a national treasure, and a trailblazer as an Hispanic star on Broadway. 

Is there anything the sensational Rivera hasn’t done? Nope. Through her colorful career as a triple-threat [dancer/singer/actress] she’s had star billing on Broadway, London, Toronto and Vegas. There were 10 Tony Award nominations – two wins, The Rink (1984) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993) — not to mention her 2018 Tony for Lifetime Achievement; and her much-deserved Kennedy Center Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom. 



Not bad for the daughter of Puerto Rican Pedro Julio Figueroa, who played saxophone and clarinet in the Washington-based U.S. Navy Band. He died when Chita was only seven and her mother Katherine Anderson del Rivero not long after auditioning at age 11 in Washington was forced to go to work as a secretary [at the Pentagon].  

Rivera said she was a “rambunctious tomboy” and to tone her down, her mother enrolled her in ballet school at age 11. When an instructor from New York’s American School of Ballet – run by the esteemed George Balanchine – visited, she was chosen to attend on a scholarship. “Some early advice from one of my Washington dance instructors was ‘Be who you are!’” she recalled. “From that day forward, I heeded that advice.”

At ABT, her teachers included Maria Tallchief and Edward Villella. It was the dance world’s loss and show biz’s gain when the 17-year-old Rivera accompanied a friend to the auditions for the tour of Call Me Madam and she ended up landing the part.  In the mid-50s, she made her Broadway debut in Cole Porter’s Can-Can, followed quickly by the Victor Young/Stella Unger musical adaptation of Seventh Heaven. She began her rise out of the chorus in 1957 with Mr. Wonderful, starring Sammy Davis Jr. and as Eartha Kitt’s understudy in Shinbone Alley.

Jerome Robbins cast her as Anita in West Side Story [1957] opposite Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence. Her electric performance to his groundbreaking choreography started her on the road to stardom.  It also led to a serious romance with Tony Mordente, who played Jet gang member. They were married during the run. Rivera’s critical acclaim equaled that of stars Kert and Lawrence, so much so that producer Hal Prince delayed the WSS West End opening until Rivera gave birth to her daughter and was back in shape. 

Her first Broadway starring role and first Tony nomination was as Rosie in Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Michael Stewart’s Bye Bye Birdie [1960], “and what a good time it was working with Gower Champion (who won Tonys as director and choreographer) and the irrepressible Dick Van Dyke (Tony Award, Featured Actor), Kay Medford, and Paul Lynde. And we were a hit with hit songs (“A Lot of Living to Do,” “One Boy,” and “Kids”).”

Three years before she was back on Broadway, when choreographer Peter Gennaro hand-picked her to appear opposite Herschel Bernardi and Nancy Dussault in Walter Marls and Ernest Kinoy’s Bajour, where as Anyanka she stopped the show dancing alongside “this brilliant kid Michael Bennett,” who was just beginning to branch out into choreography.

In 1968, she headed West. By that time Chita was a tried-and-true New Yorker, and, she stated, “L.A. is not New York. It doesn’t have New York’s pace or energy and I was very much homesick.” While there, however, Rivera did some fancy footwork as Nickie opposite Shirley MacLaine in the film version of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field’s Sweet Charity, which she had toured in as Charity for a year. “Shirley was simply sensational. We have often forgotten what a great dancer she was.”

Van Dyke never forgot Rivera. He cast her opposite he and Hope Lange for a season on The New Dick Van Dyke Show.  “I was Dick’s neighbor. It was a great opportunity, but I didn’t have a lot to do. On one show I was to come in loaded with groceries and find Dick all doped up after being at the dentist. I was to try to rouse him. My lines were, ‘Dick. Dick? Dick!’ I knew I had to make the most of it, so I really rehearsed ways to have the most impact. ‘Dick!! Dick?? DICK!’ We did it and I immediately felt it was time to throw in the towel. Done in by three Dicks, I headed back to New York.”

She was back in the razzle-dazzle soon gathering raves as jealous jail-house rival Velma Kelly, co-starring with her great pal Gwen Verdon, as the infamous Roxie Hart, for Bob Fosse and Kander & Ebb’s Chicago. Rivera had a cameo in the Oscar-winning film adaptation. 

She entered the 80s “stumbling through a very short-lived Bring Back Birdie with the adorable Donald O’Connor. We tried valiantly to bring him back, but hard as we tried, we couldn’t do it.  One show closes and you hope for another. That was Elmer Bernstein/Don Black and Richard Levinson/William Link’s lackluster Merlin (1983), where she portrayed the Queen. “I was mostly window-dressing for Doug Henning’s magic, but I was blessed to Nathan Lane in the cast (Prince Fergus). We struggled through six months until audiences magically disappeared.”

The stars realigned a year later when she received raves playing Liza Minelli’s free-spirited mom, Anna, in Kander & Ebb and Terrence McNally’s The Rink. “Along with Jason Alexander and Scott Ellis, Liza and I skated through our share of trials and tribulations, We managed to make it work for six months managed six months, but look at the music we introduced [“Colored Lights,” “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” “What Happened to the Old Days,” “The Apple Doesn’t Fall,” and “Marry Me”]. She also grabbed the brass ring: her fist Tony.

A year and a half later, Rivera headlined with Dorothy Loudon and Leslie Uggams in the, sadly, short-lived Jerry Herman revue Jerry’s Girls.

Then came Chita Rivera’s career crisis – “the worst crisis a dancer could face.” In a 1986 freak automobile accident, her left leg was crushed. “The prognosis wasn’t good,” she related, “but I was determined I’d dance again. When I saw the x-rays, I realized that would be the hardest job of my career. I thanked God for the discipline instilled in my psyche. Pity wasn’t a word in my vocabulary. I’ve never been one who does anything half-way.”

Amazingly, she was released three weeks later, albeit with 18 screws in her leg. “From day one,” Rivera noted, “I obeyed, did exactly what I was told. You could never imagine in a million years the joy I felt when I began to feel my leg was mending.” Eleven months later, “I was on my feet!” She shared that finally she had the type of mobility which made her believe she would still have a career. That she was even able to walk, much less able to dance again, was nothing short of a miracle. “All my prayers were answered. I could dance. I could live. I simply refused to think negatively!”

She did a couple of “shakedown” engagements before coming full-circle, career-wise, and signing on for the 1988 international tour of Can Can, with the high-kicking Rockettes. “How crazy was that?” she howled. “I mean, come on, of all the shows! But I didn’t miss a kick!”

Rivera continued to stun her doctors and audiences in Toronto and then in 1993 her much-heralded return to Broadway with her awesome footwork and tour-de-force (literally) portrayal in Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Manuel Puig novel Kiss of the Spider Woman  with a Latin score by Kander & Ebb, direction by Harold Prince, and choreography by Vincent Patterson and Rob Marshall. Needless to say, the show earned Rivera her second and “most cherished” Tony.

She was thrilled to be able to bring Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life to Broadway and “thoroughly enjoyed all the mischief and fun of doing (the revival of) The Mystery of Edwin Drood. However, Rivera stated she was negative when asked to join the 2003 Tony-winning revival of Maury Yeston’s Nine starring Antonio Banderas “until I found out Antonio was going out on a limb to do it. It became interesting because of him. I was careful not to arrive all stary-eyed, looking at him as this Hollywood sex symbol. He sincerely wanted to be accepted as a stage actor. There was no star attitude, and he worked harder than anyone. It didn’t take long to see he was born for the stage.”

Rivera noted she took a leap of faith to join the musical adaptation by Kander & Ebb and McNally of The Visit, based on the 1958 play by Friedrich Durrenmatt, at Chicago’s Goodman. It was created for Angela Lansbury’s return to theater, but she withdrew because of her husband’s illness. “I had no fear or trepidation going in. Angela would have been wonderful, but I made it my part. It was certainly one of the highlights of my career. When it didn’t look like we had the financing to bring it to Broadway, we were devastated.” Time and new investors eventually got the musical to Broadway, where it became Rivera’s Broadway finale.          

Her life in theater, said Chita Rivera, “was a wonderful and rewarding adventure. With each job, I felt pushed into a new area with great playwrights and creative teams who trusted me and wanted to direct me and take me further and further down this path of theatrical adventure. 

“Not a day goes by that I haven’t pinched myself and said thank you. There’s hard work involved in maintaining a career. Every once in a while, I would think, ‘You could be doing something much easier!’ Then, I’d ask myself if I’d be happy? ‘No!’ This was the path chosen for me. My goal was to stay on it as long as I could and as long I should. All in all, it turned out pretty darn well.”