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Q&A Rita Moreno on West Side Story - From the Archives

Rita Moreno in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story

This feature first appeared in the February 2023 edition of Sondheim The Magazine

There are only 16 members of the EGOT club, the exclusive band of artists who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Rita Moreno is one of them (and is, in fact, one of only three who has also won a Peabody Award). In 1961, she lit up the screen in West Side Story. Her powerful performance as Anita not only nabbed her an Oscar but also served as an inspiration for generations of Latino actors to come.

“The fact that there was a person playing a Puerto Rican in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics – and not just Puerto Ricans – in this country to be thrilled to pieces,” she says. “This was an extraordinary, extraordinary experience in every possible way.”

Now Moreno returns to the story that made her a name, but now in a different role. For Steven Spielberg’s brand-new adaptation of the original Broadway production of the Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents classic, Moreno plays Valentina, the widow of Doc (who owned the candy store in previous iterations). Moreno’s character acts as an adult voice of reason for the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, who are warring with each other in 1950s New York City. She has a particularly strong bond with Tony (Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort), a juvenile delinquent she has taken under her wing. In addition to her role as Valentina, Moreno served as an executive producer on the film.

Moreno’s presence in this new version was not lost on its young cast. “She’s a pioneer for so many of us,” says Rachel Zegler who plays María in Spielberg’s film. “It wasn’t something that I thought was a possibility for someone like me until I saw Rita Moreno dancing on a rooftop in a beautiful purple dress. So, to have her in our film, it was on another level.”

Now 89 years young, Moreno is as quick thinking and fiery as her signature character discussing her new role, the advice she gave Steven Spielberg and the moment she nearly turned down the role of Anita in the 1961 film…

How did you get involved in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story?

It was Tony Kushner’s doing. Tony was writing the script for Steven – they’ve worked together many times – and was discussing with his husband Mark Harris about what to do about the character of Doc. I believe it was Mark who suggested I play Doc’s widow. It turns out that Tony is a big fan of mine, which I had no idea about.

What happened next?

Steven called me. I said to him, “Oh, gosh, I am so flattered but, you know, I don’t do cameos. I think doing a cameo, particularly in this film, would be a major distraction, and possibly a detriment to the film.” And he said, “Oh, God, no. This is a real part. She has a name. She has a job. She’s called Valentina.” And I said, “Valentina, what a beautiful name.”

He said, “I would never call you about a cameo. May I send you the script? Are you interested?” And I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And then I got the script.

What did you think of Tony Kushner’s screenplay?

I love what he has done with the script and the sense that he has clarified a lot of things that were not really attended to in the original because this was a play. I don’t in any way want to denigrate the original because had it not been for the original, we wouldn’t be doing another version of it. So, there’s a great deal to be said for that first one. People call it an iconic film. Well, wait ’til they see this one..

What can you tell us about Valentina?

Valentina is a wonderful character. She still owns [Doc’s] candy store. Tony sleeps downstairs in the basement. Tony Kushner says she’s the heart of the film. There’s something about her that is so mature and loving and warm. She has an important role. I’m so proud to be a part of this.

How would you describe her relationship with Tony?

This is Tony Kushner doing what Tony Kushner does so beautifully. He created a relationship that’s so heart-warming, so lovely and sweet. She’s like a mother figure, or at least his [Tony’s] aunty. She protects him against the Jets because he’s trying to be straight in every way.

Did you enjoy working with Ansel Elgort?

This kid is amazing. I must tell you, after [his movie] Baby Driver, I thought he was incredible, but I’m not sure I saw him as Tony. But oh boy, was I wrong. I’m also happy to say he’s got the most gorgeous singing voice. You’re going to flip. It’s a very manly voice but it’s just coming out of this beautiful-looking young man.

Still from Spielberg's West Side Story showing Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria

How was your Steven Spielberg experience?

Steven is one of the great movie-makers of all time. He is the most cinematic person I have ever seen. He is made for film, and he is made of it. There are shots in this film that will absolutely raise enormous goosebumps. I get goosebumps the size of doorknobs, because there are things he has done with the film that will just really thrill you. He has invented things I’ve never seen before that go by so quickly you say, “Oh, I’ve got to see this again?” He’s just so inventive and creative.

What is Steven like as an actor’s director? How does he direct you?

He’s a wonderful director because he talks about the scene. He knows that you’re an actor enough to know where he’s going and then he invites you to contribute to that. He comes through the back door. That’s the best way for me to describe what he does. He kept saying to me, if I had a very emotional thing I had to do, “Don’t start at 100.” He said, “On the contrary, start at 20. Don’t give the whole thing away. Keep it inside.” He did that with me all the time. Anita was very lively, but Valentina is a different character. This is definitely not Anita. This is a grown woman, and Anita was a girl. I think it’s some of the best acting I’ve done.

How would you describe Ariana DeBose’s Anita? Is she very different from your Anita?

Well, first of all, they did something spectacular when they cast Ariana because she is Afro-Latino, of which there are many. She’s a ferociously fabulous dancer. She’s a far better dancer than I was.

Still from Spielberg's West Side Story showing the cast dancing in the streets to "America"

Your version of “America” was on a rooftop. This one is set in the streets

It’s glorious. Just think of it. Does a smart technician and inspired director want to take on an iconic number like “America”? Would they really want to take that on? He was so brilliant about this. I’m telling you; “America” will knock your socks off. I have never seen sets like these. When you enter the ghetto, you are entering a ghetto that was as beautiful as the sets were in the original. It brought tears to my eyes because the very first thing I had to film was in the ghetto outside. We were going out of order in the script and so it was outside, and I was pole-axed. I will be stunned if our set designer Adam Stockhausen doesn’t get a nomination; I’m gonna holler in a very loud way and vociferous way. He is so brilliant.

[Postscript: Stockhausen was nominated by the Academy (Oscars), the Art Directors Guild, BAFTA, the Black Reel Awards, the Chicago Indie Critics Awards and the Critics Choice Awards, among others, but sadly failed to take home any prizes; he did, however, win a CinEuphoria Award for Best Art Direction.

How did you come on board as an executive producer and what kinds of suggestions did you have?

It was Steven who thought of it. With the music, I remember being at the pre-record of “America”. First of all, the conductor for the movie, Gustavo Dudamel, is Hispanic. When I heard that, I said, “Steven, you didn’t miss a trick, did you?” I remember they were pre-recording the mambo-at-the-gym number and I said the tempo was too fast. The dancers can do it, but the steps aren’t going to be as clear and clean if they’re struggling with tempo. Gustavo said, “Well, I just love this tempo.” I said, “I don’t blame you. Ultimately, it’s a question of, how are the dancers going to look?” It was decided that we would go just under that tempo.

Poster for Spielberg's West Side Story

I also hear that you were giving some advice to the actors playing the Sharks. Tell me about that.

I became a quasi-director for about ten minutes. This was near the end of the film, when the Sharks are all running in different directions after the Rumble, because they’re afraid the police will get them and send them to jail. Steven was busy, so I just took it upon myself – I thought he wouldn’t mind – to talk to them. I said, “You look like you’re asleep.” I sounded like a director, a not-nice director. “You’re afraid that cops are going to get you. You are terrified.” I had a piece in that scene with them. I said, “You have to be every bit as dismayed, afraid and scared to death as Valentina is.” So, I improvised a scene with them as Valentina. “You think you’re going to jail for the rest of your life. You have to play that; it isn’t enough to be out of breath.” I said, “I’m no director, but you must find your own way to being terrified.” They did, and it was wonderful.

Were there other points of Puerto Rican and Hispanic culture and texture that you brought to it?

I talk to the kids all the time. I call them the kids because that is what I call dancers. But let me tell you who did do that in spades: Steven and Tony. There wasn’t a week that went by when these kids – including the Jets – weren’t lectured by somebody who came in to talk to them about the culture. I was one of the people who talked about my experiences because Tony Kushner thought my experiences were really interesting and very authentic. Every time I came to rehearsal, if they weren’t dancing, learning steps or singing, they were listening to somebody telling them about that time.

Steven arranged a panel at the University of Puerto Rico, inviting the community to share their views of the 1961 film and concerns about the new one. Tell me about that.

There was a panel on the stage and people spoke their minds. Some felt that the Puerto Rican people were depicted in a gang-y way they didn’t appreciate. The original film didn’t really deal in the culture and the social mores. It was more a theatrical expression of Romeo and Juliet. And that’s fair. But the idea that all Puerto Ricans were the same colour, for one thing…

How did you feel about that?

I hated that my make-up was so dark. In one scene, George Chakiris [Bernardo in the 1961 film] was so dark that he looked like someone had taken him by the ankles and dipped him into a bucket of mud. You could tell it was make-up because our teeth look so white. Our eyes look so white in an unnatural way, because the make-up was doing that. Puerto Ricans are many nationalities. Their skin can be dark brown. It can be white as snow because we’re French, we’re Dutch, we’re Spanish. Conquerors from many places came and invaded the island and stripped it of everything. It’s a sad, sad history.

It must delight you that this new version has an authentic Hispanic cast reflecting this mix.

It means everything. It’s so respectful and loving. Guess what? We have a María and she’s Hispanic. She sings, she has her own voice. Gorgeous voice. She was 17 when she joined the cast, which is what María was. She had her 18th birthday during the filming of West Side Story. Now she’s already on her third movie.

Poster for the 1958 stage version of West Side Story

What are your most vivid memories of making the 1961 movie?

Oh, I had a wonderful time. We all had a wonderful time because we knew we were doing something truly special. Despite all the business of white and brown, it was a brilliant concept. Romeo and Juliet in the Hispanic ghetto. We were all beyond delighted and thrilled, but I was convinced it was not going to make any money. I was walking back to my dressing room on the Sam Goldwyn Studios lot with George Chakiris, who, by the way, remains a very dear and close friend. I said, George, “I have to prepare you for something because you don’t seem to be getting it. This movie is not going to be a big hit. Think of it this way. Are there beautiful costumes? There is not one single spangle.” I was not speaking on behalf of spangles, I was just saying it’s not like your average musical in any way I can think of. It’s dark, the costumes aren’t beautiful. People are singing in these operatic voices.

How did you get the role?

I worked my little Puerto Rican ass off auditioning for it. I did in-person readings. And then I did screen tests. I worked so hard to get it. I auditioned for the singing. I auditioned for the dancing. I was up to my behind in auditions! And every little dark-haired girl in California was auditioning for this and some of them were screen-testing for this. When I finally got the part, I was jubilant. I hadn’t danced in years when I had to audition. As a dancer, I hadn’t danced in years. I didn’t know if I was going to get away with it

You mentioned accolades. What memories do you have of winning the Oscar?

Oh, it was incredible. It is one of the shortest acceptance speeches in history. Somebody told me yesterday, they timed, and it was about 15 seconds long. You have to see it on YouTube. As my name is being called, there’s a woman behind me who grabs me and it’s my mother. She says to me, “Don’t run to the stage. It’s not dignified.” It’s an old tradition that you really have to get to that stage before the applause stops because it’s a huge drop in energy. I thought, “She’s right. I am not going to run.” And I didn’t. I walked very quickly, but I did not run, and the applause never stopped.

We should say you are a member of the EGOT club, aren’t you? It’s an exclusive club!

Oh, yes, I am. Indeed.

And is it true that you didn’t work for seven years after your Oscar win?

It’s astonishing. What offers I did get were gang movies on a much lesser scale. Can you believe that? I had two awards; I had the Oscar, and I had the Golden Globe. I couldn’t get a job. I was absolutely heart-broken.

More dancing in the streets in Spielberg's West Side Story

Why is Anita so important for Hispanic representation?

She’s a dignified character but she has a sense of self, and that sense is one of self-respect. She became my role model. I never, ever had one because there was no such thing then. Who was a Puerto Rican girl in my time going to have as a role model? I picked Elizabeth Taylor, but that didn’t make sense. Anita had self-respect. She knew her place in life and it wasn’t the place that people kept putting her into. I wanted that heart with every single inch of me.

What does West Side Story mean to you?

I think the most important thing about West Side Story is that it brings a new awareness of a community that didn’t exist in people’s minds at all. This is an exquisite reminder. In many ways, it’s tragic. You will cry. I cried. So, I think it has a very important place in the annals of not only film, but society.


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