Who is Chita Rivera and why did she win one of the most prestigious awards in theatre?

Meet the woman of Puerto Rican descent who is the first Latina to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys

Who is Chita Rivera and why did she win one of the most prestigious awards in theatre?

This past June 10th, Rivera received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys, alongside Broadway legend Andrew Lloyd Webber. How did she revolutionized theatre?

“West Side Story”, “Chicago”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Kiss Me, Kate”, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” are musicals that all have one thing in common, beyond being Broadway classics: Chita Rivera starred in them, or played an important part. 

Rivera is an 85 year old woman who has spent her lifetime working in musical productions, as well as in straight plays. She has danced, acted, and sung (being a proper triple threat) on stages all over the world, and has received multiple awards in both capitals of theater: London, England, and New York City, United States.

As Rivera has told in multiple occasions, including during her acceptance speech during this year’s Tony ceremony, it all started when her mother, a widow, government clerk, and mother of 5, decided to enroll 11 year-old Chita in ballet. Ballet classes were meant to keep her busy, but Chita fell in love with the stage. Four years later, she was scouted by the School of American Ballet, in New York City. SAB is where most of the successful dancers from the US study, and it is where most of the cast of the New York City Ballet, one of the most prestigious ballet companies, is formed. 

As the PBS website for the “Broadway: the American Musical” documentary states, “in 1952 she turned from classical dance and joined the chorus of “Call Me Madam” on Broadway”. She was 19 years old when she first joined a Broadway cast, and 66 years later she is still an active part of the community. “When I was told I was going to receive this wonderful honor, I said, ‘Does that mean it’s all over? Does that mean that I’m finished?’ Well, it absolutely does not”, she said during her acceptance speech. 

 

Rivera has been one of the most iconic faces of Broadway, and of Musical Theatre around the world. This makes her one of the biggest representatives of Latino culture in a world where Latinos are not new, but where they have not always been acknowledged. 

West Side Story

If there is one Broadway classic that cannot deny its hispanic roots it’s West Side Story. Rivera played Anita in the first production of this show, which is one of the leading roles of the story. According to Rivera’s website, “This show established her as a major Broadway star and marks the beginning of the legend of Chita Rivera as Broadway's foremost dancer-actress-singer”. 

Chicago

Rivera was also in the original production of this unforgettable hit, as well as in the movie version. She played Velma Kelly, a vaudeville who murders her husband and sister, and who is backed by the best criminal lawyer in the city, until Roxie Hart takes hims away from her. Velma is one of the iconic characters of Broadway, and she was first brought to life by Rivera. 

According to her website, “Chita's rendition of "All That Jazz" in the original 1975 production of Chicago goes down as a defining moment in the history of Broadway. Her entrance alone, rising from the floor in a sinewy Fosse pose, is a theatrical icon, the perfect melding of music, choreography, and a great star!”

 

Chita Rivera
 

LatinAmerican Post | Laura Rocha Rueda

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