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Chita Rivera: Biography, Broadway Shows & Quotes

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Did you know it's possible to dance your way to stardom? What would it be like to sing roles in beloved Broadway shows like West Side Story? In this lesson, we'll explore the life and career of musical theater legend Chita Rivera.

Beginning a Life in Dance

Chita Rivera was born in 1933 in Washington DC to a Puerto Rican father and a Scottish-American mother. The girl was an active child and to channel her energy her mother enrolled her in ballet classes when she was eleven. Rivera took to dance and later, thanks to a scholarship, attended the School of American Ballet in New York City where she studied with George Balanchine.

In the early 1950s, Chita Rivera accompanied a friend to an audition for a part in the chorus of a national touring show and ended up winning a role for herself. It proved she was a double-talent--a dancer and a singer. Additional roles as a dancer followed, and she began to win featured performer roles in Broadway musicals.

Breakout Roles

Anita

In 1957, the landmark American musical West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. It was an updated take on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, told as a tale of two rival street gangs and the women in their lives. In it, Rivera originated the role of Anita, a spirited Puerto Rican immigrant. This was her huge breakout role, showcasing her dancing and singing in memorable songs like ''America'' and ''A Boy Like That.'' The musical enabled her to work with Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story also brought a change to her personal life, as she met and married a fellow dancer from the show. (The marriage ended in 1966 but resulted in the birth of a daughter.) In 1958, Rivera also originated the role of Anita in West Side Story on the London stage.

Chita Rivera in publicity still from West Side Story, 1957
Chita Rivera

Other Roles

From there, Rivera went on to a long, satisfying career. In 1960, Rivera originated the role of Rose Grant when she starred with Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie, for which she received her first Tony nomination. In 1975, working with the legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and fellow dancer Gwen Verdon, Rivera originated the role of Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago. Again she was nominated for a Tony.

A Legendary Career and a Comeback

In 1984 Rivera starred as Anna in The Rink with Liza Minelli. This story of the rocky relationship between a mother and a daughter won Rivera a Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical as well as a Drama Desk Award.

In 1986, while starring in the musical Jerry's Girls, Rivera was in a serious auto accident, leaving her left leg shattered. A long painful recovery followed, including eighteen screws in her leg. Imagine how you would feel -- injured at the height of your career in a profession like dance and theater! Never one to admit defeat, she focused on rehabilitation and eventually returned to the stage. In 1993, when she was in her 60s, Rivera's starring title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman won her a Tony for Leading Actress in a Musical and another Drama Desk Award.

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