Sunday, July 14, 2024
    HomeLifeStyleChita Rivera, Electrifying Star of Broadway and Beyond, Is Dead at 91

    Chita Rivera, Electrifying Star of Broadway and Beyond, Is Dead at 91

    Her father, who was born in Puerto Rico, played the clarinet and saxophone with the U.S. Navy Band and the Harry James Orchestra. He died when Conchita was 7. Her mother, who was of Scottish, Irish and Puerto Rican descent and also had African American ancestors, which she discovered late in life, became a clerk at the Pentagon and enrolled Conchita in singing, dance and piano lessons. Dancing became her passion. On the advice of her teacher, she auditioned for George Balanchine and won a scholarship to his School of American Ballet in New York City.

    Living with an uncle’s family in the Bronx, she graduated from William Howard Taft High School in 1951. At an open call for dancers, she won a part with a national touring company of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam.” After 10 months on the road, she replaced Onna White as a principal dancer in “Guys and Dolls” in New York. Over the next few years, she danced in “Seventh Heaven,” “Shoestring Revue” and “Mr. Wonderful.” Her career moved up. She shortened her name to a catchy Chita Rivera.

    In 1953, she landed a Broadway gig as a chorus dancer in “Can-Can,” the Cole Porter-Abe Burrows musical starring Gwen Verdon, who encouraged Ms. Rivera to shoot for the marquee. She won a part in “Mr. Wonderful” and had a romantic fling with its star, Sammy Davis Jr.

    Ms. Rivera shot to stardom in 1957 as Anita in “West Side Story,” the Romeo-and-Juliet tale set in postwar Manhattan, where star-crossed lovers, Maria and Tony, are caught in a deadly war of street gangs. As Anita, she sang a poignant duet with Carol Lawrence as Maria, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” and a magical “Tonight,” as well as leading a rousing ensemble in “America.”

    With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, choreography by Mr. Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents, the musical won ecstatic reviews and ran for 732 performances before going on tour, and it had an even longer run in London.

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