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Chita Rivera, Tony Award-winning actress and singer, dead at 91

Chita Rivera, an iconic performer of stage and screen with credits including “Chicago,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Sweet Charity,” has died. She was 91.

Rivera’s longtime publicist Merle Frimark confirmed the news to CNN on Tuesday, saying Rivera died “peacefully” on Tuesday “in New York after a brief illness.”

The recipient of a record 10 Tony Award nominations, and winner of two for “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Rivera’s unparalleled Broadway career spanned decades, from playing Anita in “West Side Story” and opposite Dick Van Dyke in “Bye Bye Birdie” to signature Bob Fosse musicals like “Chicago” and “All That Jazz.”

Although she maintained a dizzying stage schedule, Rivera appeared in a number of movies and TV shows as well, including screen adaptations of “Sweet Charity” and “Chicago” as well as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Her most recent screen credit was in Netflix’s 2021 movie “Tick, Tick… Boom!” in which she appeared in a sequence among other stage musical luminaries.

In this 1957 file photo, Chita Rivera, the original cast member in the Broadway musical production of "West Side Story," is shown. - AP
In this 1957 file photo, Chita Rivera, the original cast member in the Broadway musical production of "West Side Story," is shown. - AP

Born in Washington, DC in 1933, Rivera began training as a ballerina at age 9 before receiving a scholarship to the School of American Ballet from legendary choreographer George Balanchine, an obituary from Frimark detailed.

Rivera, whose father was Puerto Rican, soon became one of Broadway’s most notable triple-threats (actor-singer-dancer), paving the way for Latinx artists to follow. She originated the timeless role of Anita in the original Broadway premiere of “West Side Story” in 1957.

Her stage career highlights include starring roles in “Bye Bye Birdie,” “The Rink” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” along with the original Broadway casts of “Guys and Dolls” and “Mr. Wonderful.”

The honors Rivera amassed included being a Kennedy Center honoree in 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented to her by President Barack Obama in 2009. She was also awarded the 2018 Special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theatre.

Rivera also wrote a book, “Chita: A Memoir,” which was published last year.

In a statement, Lin-Manuel Miranda, director of “Tick, Tick… Boom!”, called Rivera “the trailblazer for Puerto Rico on Broadway.” He recounted how Rivera initially hadn’t been available for the scene in which he was hoping she’d cameo, but he left a chair unoccupied for her, determined to make it happen. His dream came to be during the film’s reshoots, when Rivera was finally able to sit in the chair Miranda had reserved for her. On that day, he said, she “held court all day.”

“It remains one of the all-time joys of my life. She was magnificent,” he added. “She IS magnificent, not ready for the past tense just yet.”

Chita Rivera at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. - Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Chita Rivera at the 72nd annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in New York. - Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Rita Moreno, who won the best supporting actress Academy Award for playing Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story,” said in a statement provided to CNN that Rivera was “eternal” and “the essence of Broadway.”

“When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride,” Moreno – who is of Puerto Rican descent – added. “Over the years, we were sometimes mistaken for each other which I always viewed as a badge of honor… As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend. Chita, amiga, Salud!”

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also won an Oscar for playing a role on film that was originated by Rivera on Broadway – in this case, for playing Velma Kelly in the film adaptation of “Chicago” – noted the “incredible impact” that Rivera had on her life, and paid tribute to her “queen.”

“From dreaming of being you as a little girl, then meeting you and then being deeply connected to you by playing the one and only Velma Kelly in Chicago,” Zeta-Jones posted on Instagram, “There will never, ever, be anyone like you Chita, ever.”

Ariana DeBose, who also clinched the Academy Award for portraying Anita – in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of “West Side Story” – called Rivera “a force” in her Instagram tribute on Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Chita Rivera during a ceremony at the White House August 12, 2009 in Washington, DC. - Win McNamee/Getty Images
U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Chita Rivera during a ceremony at the White House August 12, 2009 in Washington, DC. - Win McNamee/Getty Images

“In truth she made me nervous. To be in her presence was to behold greatness,” DeBose added. “I always got the sense that she had great expectations, but none greater than the ones she held herself to…I am heartbroken and yet ever inspired as she showed so many of us what was possible.”

Stephanie Pope, Broadway actress and friend of Rivera, told CNN on Tuesday that the late star “is and always will be a legend… She achieved a standard of excellence that we all aspired to but will never match.”

“I cherish the time I spent with her both on stage and off,” Pope added. “The theater community and world has lost a true star.”

Frimark included a statement from Rivera’s daughter Lisa Mordente, which mentioned the star’s funeral will be private and that she is survived by her daughter and siblings Julio, Armando and Lola del Rivero “along with her many nieces, nephews and friends.”

CNN’s Brian Lowry and Dan Heching contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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