Rivera got her start on the stage performing in musicals like Can-Can and Mr. Wonderful, but it was her role as Anita in the original production of West Side Story that catapulted her to fame. The classic Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical premiered Sept. 26, 1957, at the Winter Garden Theatre. Jerome Robbins directed a cast that starred Larry Kert as Tony and Carol Lawrence as Maria.
In his New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson called the show "an incandescent piece of work that finds odd bits of beauty amid the rubbish of the streets." The production went on to play 732 performances and received six Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical, though that award went to Meredith Willson's The Music Man.
(Note: This Playbill is from one year into the run, when Muriel Bentley had taken over the role of Anita.)
Three years later, Rivera starred in the original production of Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Michael Stewart's Bye Bye Birdie, which opened April 14, 1960, at the Martin Beck Theatre. She played Rose opposite Dick Van Dyke as Albert Peterson.
Brooks Atkinson gave the show a lukewarm review, but said Rivera was "a flammable singer and gyroscopic dancer." The production ran for 607 performances and earned Rivera her first Tony Award nomination for Featured Actress in a Musical. The show also took home the 1961 Tony for Best Musical.
Rivera's next career highlight came in 1975 when she originated the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, the musical starred Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart with Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn and Barney Martin as Amos Hart.
The production opened June 3, 1975, at the 46th Street Theatre, where it ran for 936 performances. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes wrote: "We are given three superlative, knock-em-in-the-aisles performances by three stars who glitter like gold dust all evening: Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach." Rivera earned her second Tony Award nomination for her performance.
After appearing in the short-lived Bring Back Birdie and Merlin, Rivera starred opposite Liza Minnelli in The Rink. With music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally, the production opened Feb. 9, 1984, at the Martin Beck Theatre.
Frank Rich of the New York Times praised Rivera's powerhouse performance: "Her voice is firm and sparky; her crinkly smile, often forced in recent years, is spontaneous; her taut dancer's body is in perfect concord with the music's beat." Rivera was awarded the 1984 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Anna, beating out her co-star Minnelli.
Following a stint in the musical revue Jerry's Girls, Rivera played the title character in yet another Kander and Ebb musical: Kiss of the Spider Woman. Directed by Harold Prince, the production opened May 3, 1993, and featured Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello in the cast.
In his New York Times review, Frank Rich noted that Rivera possessed "an aura of utter confidence that is the essence of a Broadway dancer's brassy spirit." The show was crowned Best Musical at the 1993 Tonys, and Rivera won her second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
Rivera most recently appeared on Broadway in the Tony-nominated revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Click here to read more about her theatrical history in the Vault.