Over the last seven decades, the Broadway star Chita Rivera has taken on and defined some of American musical theater’s most iconic roles: Anita in “West Side Story,” Rose in “Bye Bye Birdie,” Velma Kelly in “Chicago.”
In her forthcoming memoir, Rivera introduces her fans and readers to a character she has rarely played in public: her alter ego of sorts, Dolores. And Dolores, which is Rivera’s given name, can be a little prickly, according to Rivera’s co-author, the journalist Patrick Pacheco.
When they first sat down to discuss the memoir in the summer of 2020, Pacheco asked Rivera what people didn’t know about her.
“She said, ‘Well, I’m not nearly as nice as people think I am,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Great, let’s introduce the public to her.’”
In her still-untitled book, which is due out in 2023 from HarperOne and will be released simultaneously in English and Spanish, Rivera describes her unlikely path to stardom. Born Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero in 1933, Rivera grew up in Washington, D.C., where her mother worked as a government clerk and her father was a clarinet and saxophone player for the U.S. Navy Band.
She was so rambunctious and theatrical at home that her mother enrolled her in ballet school. She won a scholarship to George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet and went on to land roles in musicals like “Call Me Madam,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Can-Can” and “West Side Story,” where she delivered a breakout performance as Anita in the musical’s original production. Over the decades, she has been nominated for 10 Tony Awards and has won twice, and received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2009, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Early in her career, Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, worked to defy the stereotypes that were imposed on her in a largely white creative industry.
“She was always very empowered from the beginning to play anything she felt she was capable of playing,” Pacheco said.
Some of the theater world’s most influential composers and choreographers were drawn to Rivera’s magnetism and perfectionism. In her memoir, she describes working with Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Bob Fosse, Hal Prince and Fred Ebb, and her experiences with stars and castmates like Elaine Stritch, Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.
Rivera, who turned 89 this month, has done career retrospectives before, including “The Dancer’s Life,” a musical celebrating her career. But while friends and colleagues had nudged her over the years to write a memoir, she never felt compelled to until recently.
“I’ve never been one to look back,” Rivera said in a statement released by her publisher. “I hope my words and thoughts about my life and career resonate and readers just might discover some things about me they never knew.”
Though she’s had a lasting influence on theater as a performer, Rivera is not a writer, and Pacheco was a natural collaborator — he first met her in the 1970s and had already interviewed her extensively in 2005 when he was brought on as a researcher for “A Dancer’s Life.”
He and Rivera would meet or talk on the phone once or twice a week as they were working on the book, and he urged Rivera to open up about her private life and to be candid about her not-so-nice side, Pacheco said. “Let’s put them in the room with Chita,” he remembered telling her, “but let’s also put them in the room with Dolores.”