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Broadway legend Chita Rivera dances through her life in a new memoir

HarperCollins

An admirer once said Chita Rivera had "the fastest feet on Broadway."

At age 90, she's a legendary dancer and proved it in the big musicals of her day — Bye Bye Birdie, Can Can, Chicago, and the biggest — West Side Story. Her talent as a dancer was almost as big as her birth name, which she shared with NPR in an interview: "Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero. Now, the rest of it is Montestuco Florentino Carnemacaral del Fuente."

Her new, eponymous memoir Chita — written with Patrick Pacheco — dances through the patterns of her brilliant career.

Rivera was in her mid-20s when she got her first big break. She created the role of Anita — the Puerto Rican lover of the head of the Shark gang — in the original 1957 Broadway version of West Side Story. "I am the original," she says. "I was there at the first flicker of the skirt!"

Other West Side Story originals are also legends today. Conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein wrote the music. He asked Rivera to come to his apartment for an audition. Bernstein lived in a fancy West Side building. A doorman escorted her there.

"I nervously go into his music room," she remembers. "It was very bright. Lots of windows overlooking Carnegie Hall." She'd prepared. Learned every note of Anita's music. But she didn't sing it first in the audition with Bernstein. She sang Gershwin's slow and mournful "My Man's Gone Now," from Porgy and Bess. Then she performed Bernstein's music. She liked him. "He was so natural, he was so normal," she says. "I forgot who he was."

This young, un-wealthy, unflappable Puerto Rican girl who grew up in Washington, D.C., showing the great maestro what she could do. "To hear him say that was good — oh! I mean it was was like saying it was great!"

Another legend — dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins — directed and choreographed West Side Story. Rivera came to him from training in ballet. Robbins added angles and yes, flirtatious flicking skirts to the show.

Chita Rivera, center, in rehearsal for <em>West Side Story</em> beside choreographer Jerome Robbins in July 1957.
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AP
Chita Rivera, center, in rehearsal for West Side Story beside choreographer Jerome Robbins in July 1957.

"He mixed a little bit of jazz in there, and a twist of the hip, a twist of the leg," she recalls. He was a demanding perfectionist, and Rivera worked her hips off. "To work with Jerome Robbins was to have a father. You wanted to please your father," she says. "You wanted to do exactly as he described it. It was all about pleasing the teacher."

When the time came to make the first movie version of West Side Story, Chita Rivera was not cast as Anita. Rita Moreno played her instead. Rivera was disappointed. But looking back, she says, that closed door opened many new ones during Broadway's Golden Age. She starred in Bye Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. She scooped up Tony and Drama Desk Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Kennedy Center Honor. So many honors!

"President Barack Obama and I shared a laugh about his two left feet when he presented me with the Presidential medal of Freedom in 2009," Rivera writes her new memoir.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
"President Barack Obama and I shared a laugh about his two left feet when he presented me with the Presidential medal of Freedom in 2009," Rivera writes her new memoir.

Although she doesn't think she's a great singer ("Oh goodness no!") on a stage once, or on You Tube now — with her flashing eyes and bright red lips and sexy shoulders, 90-year-old Dolores Conchita Figueroa, del Rivero Montestuco Florentino Carnemacaral del Fuente sounds as great as she looks.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chita Rivera performs in New York City on June 30, 2018.
Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Chita Rivera performs in New York City on June 30, 2018.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.