Chita Rivera: Tributes to 'theatrical legend' who has died at 91

Chita Rivera attends The 2018 Chita Rivera Awards at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2018 in New York City.
Chita Rivera attends The 2018 Chita Rivera Awards at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2018 in New York City.

One of Broadway's most celebrated stars, Chita Rivera, has died at the age of 91.

The Tony Award-winning entertainer is known for her successful theatre career spanning nearly seven decades.

Her most notable roles included Anita in West Side Story, Velma in Chicago and Rose in Bye Bye Birdie.

Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the first film version of West Side Story in 1961, led the tributes, describing her as "the essence of Broadway".

Scene from the Broadway musical "West Side Story," L-R: Lynn Ross, unnamed actress, Chita Rivera, and Carmen Guitterez. Undated photo
Rivera originated the role of Anita in West Side Story on stage in 1957

"As I write this, I am raising a glass to this remarkable woman and friend," the 92-year-old wrote in a tribute on Instagram.

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda described Rivera as a "trailblazer" who had many "iconic Broadway roles because she was an absolute original".

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote that she "redefined the words 'theatrical legend'."

Rivera was born in 1933 in Washington DC to a Puerto Rican father and a mother of Scottish and Irish heritage.

She began her Broadway career in the 1950s, landing roles in productions like Can-Can and Mr Wonderful.

In 1957, she was part of the original West Side Story cast - a performance that paved her way to Broadway stardom.

Soon after, Rivera was nominated for a Tony Award for the musical Bye Bye Birdie alongside Dick Van Dyke.

Van Dyke also paid tribute, saying Rivera was "the best that ever was".

A few decades later, the actress starred in another iconic role: vaudeville performer Velma Kelly in Chicago.

Triple threat

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for playing Velma on screen, said on Instagram: "There are no words to tell you what an incredible impact you have had on my life.

"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.

"There will never, ever, be anyone like you Chita, ever. Dim the lights on Broadway! Or, may I suggest, we just plug the plug. I love you Chita, sleep tight my Queen."

Rivera was celebrated for being a "triple-threat" - singing, dancing and acting in numerous Broadway hits throughout the years, as well as being a trailblazer for Latina women.

Her last Broadway appearance was in 2015 in The Visit alongside the late Welsh actor and director Roger Rees.

'Authentic Broadway icon'

Other colleagues and friends of Rivera's remembered her for her dazzling stage presence and outstanding achievements.

Actor Jason Alexander in a post on X: "The incomparable Chita Rivera was one of the greatest spirits and colleagues I've ever known. She set the bar in every way. I will cherish her always."

Actress Mia Farrow called her "an authentic Broadway icon".

"No one who was fortunate enough to have seen any of her performances will ever forget the experience," Ms Farrow said on X.

The Tony Awards called her a "Broadway legend ... whose grace, talent and passion left an unforgettable mark on the world of theatre".

Rivera's work earned her two Tony Awards for best actress in a musical for The Rink and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She was nominated for eight others.

In 2002, Rivera was the first Latina to be awarded Kennedy Center Honors, which is given to artists for lifetime achievements in performing arts.

She is also a recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US, given to her by former President Barack Obama in 2009 for her work as an "agent of change".

In 2018, Rivera was given a lifetime Tony award. Last year she published her autobiography, Chita: A Memoir, which became a New York Times best seller.

Her daughter Lisa Mordente said she died peacefully in New York from a brief illness.