Chita Rivera, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91, was known for her extraordinary artistry. Yet, it is hard to comprehend the full scope of her talent because, like so many Broadway performers of her generation, much of her best work was not captured on-screen. Her Anita in the landmark 1957 Broadway production of “West Side Story”? Rita Moreno took it on in the Hollywood adaptation. Rose in the hit “Bye Bye Birdie,” from 1960? That role went to Janet Leigh in the movie. Only in 1969 did Rivera make her feature-film debut, in “Sweet Charity,” almost two decades after her Broadway debut. Thankfully, we have variety shows, TV specials and unofficial fan videos to help us patch together a compelling video portrait. Her life force bursts through in every second.
Here’s a look back at some of those indelible moments.
Although this song is closely associated with its writer, Steve Allen, Rivera made it her own in this appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1962. The dancers welcome her by singing “Hey, Chita! Like, wow!” and that pretty much sums it all up. Rivera did not need a whole show to make an impact: She could deliver a knockout punch in just a few minutes. Not only did the era’s variety shows provide perfect settings for those self-contained gems, but they also introduced her to a national audience.
Rivera easily held her own against the best, including Judy Garland. The two women performed a duet of this song from “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on Garland’s variety show in January 1964. On that same episode, Rivera also blew the roof off the studio with “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” a number from “Porgy and Bess” reimagined as a va-va-voom dance extravaganza choreographed by Peter Gennaro.
Triple threat? Make that a quadruple one, because Rivera possessed the elusive quality known as charisma that is necessary to drive cabaret acts and variety shows. That is where you could fully experience her explosiveness as a pure entertainer, where she matched the elite likes of Ann-Margret and Liza Minnelli. Devised by Jack Cole, whom Rivera called “the quintessential West Coast choreographer,” this intoxicating performance turned up on a 1965 episode of ABC’s “The Hollywood Palace.” (Rivera’s “Pretty for Me,” three years later on the same show, ranks among the most fabulously camp numbers ever seen on television.”)
It feels incredible, in hindsight, that it took so long for Rivera to be cast in a movie. After playing the title role during the first national tour of “Sweet Charity” in 1967, she was not entirely happy to be cast in the supporting role of Nickie for the Bob Fosse adaptation two years later. But it was something, and she even got to lead a big rooftop number. In this classic barnstormer, the best friends Charity (Shirley MacLaine), Helene (Paula Kelly) and Nickie dance up their dreams of escaping their current reality as taxi dancers. The number is so exhilaratingly that by the end you are convinced that absolutely nothing could stand in their way. And, of course, it’s Rivera who is leading the charge.
Rivera and Gwen Verdon sang a two-song medley from “Chicago” on “The Mike Douglas Show” in June 1976. By then they had been playing Velma and Roxie — roles they originated — for a year, and knew the characters and Fosse’s moves inside out. This is pure, unadulterated Broadway fabulousness: bask in it. (Make sure to stick around for the post-performance interview.)
Brent Carver set up Rivera’s big number at the 1993 Tony Awards, where they represented the Kander and Ebb musical “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” This was a fitting framing since, Rivera wrote in her memoir, Carver helped her find her character, a fantastical diva who happens to be a figment of his character’s imagination. The show marked Rivera’s triumphant return to Broadway after seven years away, and she won her second Tony.
Rivera had a long association with Kander and Ebb, but this song from her solo act is not actually from one of their shows, much less one she appeared in. Rather it’s from the movie “Funny Lady,” which means that she had to go against the memory of Barbra Streisand. No problem! This is just a sterling illustration of Rivera acting a number as much as singing it. The song revs up in the most thrilling way, and Rivera rises to the challenge.
Rivera put on a French accent in 2003 to portray the aging showgirl Liliane La Fleur (created by Liliane Montevecchi) in a revival of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical “Nine.” Naturally, she made a meal of this nostalgic ode to a faded era of entertainment and glamour.