How West Side Story’s Anita set US theatre alight

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By Neil ArmstrongFeatures correspondent

Alamy Chita Rivera (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Chita Rivera (Credit: Alamy)

It was the role that made the name of Broadway legend Rivera, who died yesterday – a sparky, sarky, independent-minded Latinx woman who had never been seen before on stage.

The world of musical theatre is in mourning for Chita Rivera, who has died at the age of 91. Although the Broadway legend had a stellar career spanning seven decades, she will perhaps be best remembered for playing the role of Anita in the original production of West Side Story which debuted on Broadway in 1957. Rivera also played Anita when the show came to the West End of London in 1958.

Her portrayal of a sparky, sarky, independent-minded Latinx woman was, for that time, radical. Latinx representation – both in terms of characters and actors playing them – in mainstream shows was relatively scarce. But here was a Puerto Rican woman playing a Puerto Rican character in an electrifying Broadway hit.

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With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Anita is the most significant female character after Maria, who is the heroine and Juliet figure. She’s the girlfriend of Maria’s older brother, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican street gang at war with the Jets. The Jets are the white gang that was co-founded by Tony, Maria’s love interest and the Romeo figure. Anita is Maria’s friend and confidante, like an older sister to her.

Getty Images Rivera's Anita was a rare example of strong Latinx representation in US popular culture at the time (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Rivera’s Anita was a rare example of strong Latinx representation in US popular culture at the time (Credit: Getty Images)

Dr Elizabeth Wells of Mount Allison University in Canada is an expert on musical theatre and author of a book on West Side Story, West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. “The character of Anita is an important one in the show. The creators were trying to reproduce the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, and decided to make her an equal to Maria,” she tells BBC Culture. “She is pivotal to the plot in that it is she who tells the Jets at the end that Maria is dead, which then precipitates the tragedy.”

In the story, Anita is trying to get a message from Maria to Tony, who is in hiding, when she is attacked and nearly gang-raped by the Jets. In fury, she tells the Jets – and therefore Tony – that Maria has been shot.

The character is a strong Latinx woman who is not afraid to say what she thinks, is not afraid of her own sexuality – Dr Elizabeth Wells

“Arthur Laurents was particularly proud that the false information was as a result of racism, not just a random piece of misinformation,” says Wells. “The character is a strong Latinx woman who is not afraid to say what she thinks, is not afraid of her own sexuality. Chita Rivera was the closest thing to a ‘star’ in the show as she had been cast before in other shows. The reason she was not given the role in the film is that she was thought to look too old for the role in the more intimate medium of film.”

Rivera was one of the few members of the cast of the show with Puerto Rican heritage but Rita Moreno, another Puerto Rican performer, was cast as Anita in the 1961 movie. The film won 10 Oscars, more than any other musical, including the award for best supporting actress for Moreno. In Steven Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation of West Side Story, Ariana DeBose played Anita and also won an Academy Award for it – and a Bafta. (Pleasingly, Spielberg created a role for Moreno too).

In Rivera’s hands, the character of Anita immediately made an impression on audiences. As Wells points out in her book, one reviewer of the original London production, Morton Shulman in the Evening Standard, described Rivera as “a throbbing bundle of vivacious Latin femininity”. And The Stage said of her that she “burst upon London like a firecracker”.

It also helps that Anita has one of the musical’s best songs, America. This is a big, exuberant show-stopping production number in which Anita praises aspects of American life while other singers answer with criticisms highlighting America’s racism and hypocrisy.

Alamy Rita Moreno took over the role of Anita for the 1961 film (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Rita Moreno took over the role of Anita for the 1961 film (Credit: Alamy)

In the films, for example, Anita sings: “Buying on credit is so nice.” Bernardo responds: “One look at us and they charge twice.” In the Broadway lyrics, she dismisses Puerto Rico as an “island of tropical diseases” but says “I like the island Manhattan – smoke on your pipe and put that in!”

But Anita has the last word in the song in both the films and the stage show. When one character sings about how they will return to Puerto Rico and get a big cheer, Anita’s tart riposte is, “Everyone there will have moved here.”

Later, she tells Bernardo: “I’m an American girl now. I don’t wait.” She won’t be anybody’s obedient little woman, another reason audiences have taken to her through the various versions.

In an interview with the New York Post, Ariana DeBose said of Anita: “She’s a beacon of self-respect and agency. She speaks her mind. Those kinds of characters were typically described as ‘difficult women’.”

She is also – arguably – a more tragic figure than Maria. Her boyfriend is murdered, she comes close to being gang-raped by the Jets and she is indirectly responsible for Tony’s death.

The two movie Anitas were among the many stars yesterday paying tribute to Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner and a recipient of America’s highest civilian honour, the Medal of Freedom. “To be in her presence was to behold greatness,” said DeBose on Instagram. “Chita Rivera is eternal,” Moreno wrote on the same plaform. And, for fans of musicals, so is the iconic, trailblazing character of Anita that Chita Rivera helped to create.

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