Broadway Show TicketsMusicalsChicagoChita Rivera, CHICAGO's original Velma Kelly, dies at 91

Chita Rivera, CHICAGO's original Velma Kelly, dies at 91


Three-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera, originator of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago, passed away on January 30 after a short illness. The legend was 91.

Rivera's illustrious career spanned seven decades, beginning with her debut at 20 in the original Broadway production of Guys and Dolls. Before this, Rivera had been training as a dancer at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet when a teacher from the George Balanchine's School of American Ballet plucked her from the crowd and had her audition in New York City where she received a scholarship to study dance further. Her first professional theatrical dance gig followed in Call Me Madam with Elaine Stritch.

Taking the path less traveled

Rivera spent the '50s performing in various musical comedies. Still, her starring role as the strong-willed Anita in the 1957 production of West Side Story cemented her position in the theatrical world. Her role in Bye Bye Birdie would earn her a Tony nomination, the first of many, while her first win would come for the role of Anna in 1984's The Rink. Rivera would also originate several iconic roles in productions like Bajour, Bring Back Birdie, Merlin, and Chicago.

Broadway's pathbreaking, trailblazing icon

Chicago, despite now being one of the most successful musicals of all time, was initially considered a failure. It saw a revival in 1996, with Rivera later appearing in the revival in 1999 as Roxie Hart. She also had a cameo in the 2002 Oscar-winning film adaptation as an inmate at the Cook County Jail. The cast of Chicago, who were scheduled to perform at the Ambassador Theatre on the night of Rivera's passing, paid tribute to the icon following the show. Amra-Faye Wright, the show's current Velma Kelly, tearfully shared, “I feel still an impostor in the role because it belonged to Chita Rivera." Wright continued, "She created it. She starred in the original production of ‘Chicago’ and she lives on constantly in our hearts, on this stage, in every performance. We love you, Chita.”

A powerhouse in every era, Rivera left a legacy behind that shaped modern Broadway and created a path for women, especially Latinas. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her portrayal in the film adaptation of West Side Story, shared, “I remember seeing her for the first time in ‘Mr. Wonderful’ and exclaiming, ‘Oh my god, who IS that?’ When I found out that this astonishing creature was one of my people, I crowed with pride.” Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer, writer, and actor known for Hamilton, called Rivera “The trailblazer for [Puerto Ricans] on Broadway.”

Watch Amra-Faye Wright honor Chita Rivera's legacy in Chicago on Broadway

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