Rita Moreno has won two Emmy awards, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony, making her one of only 12 people to win all four. Out of her EGOT grand slam, Moreno considers her 1962 Oscar for the role of Anita in West Side Story her most cherished honor. After all, she says, “It was my very first!” But it was not, however, her first movie musical. She appeared in Singin’ in the Rain as Zelda Zanders in 1952, and four years later, she played Tuptim in The King and I—a part that would help her land West Side Story.
Now 79, Moreno shows no sign of stopping. She starred with Fran Drescher in TV Land’s “Happily Divorced,” and last month, her solo show Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California—she hopes to continue both endeavors through next year.
To commemorate West Side Story’s 50th anniversary, 20th Century Fox is releasing a special edition of the classic movie this November. Dance Teacher spoke with the fiery Moreno about filming her iconic role.
Dance Teacher: How did you get the part of Anita?
Rita Moreno: After I finished working on The King and I with Jerry Robbins, he told me, “I’m going to do a musical next year called West Side Story. It’s based on Romeo and Juliet, and I think you’d be a marvelous—” are you ready for this—“Maria.” He asked if I’d be willing to come to New York and audition, and of course I said yes.
But when it came time for the audition, I didn’t go. I got cold feet. I got very scared about going to an audition, on an empty stage, staring into a dark auditorium. I had done too many movies, and I was accustomed to having the chance to do multiple takes to improve a scene. Later, when it opened on Broadway, I saw the play and thought, “Oh, boy, I was so wrong.”
Now, flash forward to when they were making the movie, and Jerry said to Robert Wise who was directing with him: “There’s one person I want to see right away and that’s Rita Moreno. But she looks different now, and I think she could do Anita.” So I went to audition, and that’s how I got Anita.
DT: What was filming like?
RM: Most of the dancers were from the Broadway production, and I was scared to death for two reasons. Number one, I hadn’t danced in years. Number two—which should really be number one—I had never done jazz in my life, ever! I was a Spanish dancer. I had to learn from the bottom up how to dance, and especially dance with the arm strength that Jerry’s work required. When I see myself doing “America,” I’m always embarrassed, because I think my arms look very flaccid.
DT: Had you studied ballet before working with Jerome Robbins?
RM: My family and I came from Puerto Rico, and when we got to New York, I began to take flamenco lessons with Paco Cansino. It turned out he was the uncle of Rita Hayworth—whose name was originally Margarita Cansino. He was like Spanish royalty, and I was thrilled to be his student. Paco’s school also had a ballet teacher and a tap teacher, and I took lessons from them, too.
DT: Was Robbins your mentor when working on the dance scenes?
RM: He really was—even though he was probably one of the cruelest people I’ve met, and he gave me a very hard time. I hate to say this because it makes it seem like sadism is OK, but he really brought out more than the best in me. I know that he was very proud of me, and that just knocks my socks off. He knew I wasn’t up to par like the other kids—they were spectacular dancers—and I killed myself to try to meet the standards of jazz and ballet. I’m touched that Jerry thought I was able to carry it off.
DT: What scene was most challenging?
RM: At the very end of “America,” all the women finish on our partners’ shoulders. In rehearsals for the scene, George Chakiris (Bernardo) wore a T-shirt and I had on tights. But when we actually filmed the scene, George was wearing a very slippery black silk jacket, and I was wearing a very slippery purple skirt. Every time I tried to land on his shoulder I would slip off. Not only were the two silks fighting each other, my behind was wider than his shoulder—and his shoulders drooped. We must have done at least 30 takes.
DT: Do you have a favorite scene?
RM: “America” is wonderful, especially because it says something important in a sociological way of what it’s like for Latinos in America. But my favorite is the “Mambo at the Gym.” That thing just moves! It’s hip—it’s still hip; that’s what’s so amazing. When he was putting it together, Jerry Robbins visited many local dance halls for inspiration.
DT: Did the cast get along? Was there chemistry between the cast members?
RM: There really was—we laughed a lot. But the Jets came in one day—I think initially it was Russ Tamblyn’s (Riff’s) idea—wearing T-shirts that read, “The Jets.” It’s so common now, but back then, T-shirts with writing was pretty new. And the Sharks, especially George Chakiris, got very upset. So George found and bought a whole bunch of black leather wristbands for his Sharks. And when Jerry saw the wristbands, he absolutely loved them. They’re even in the movie. After that it became Jerry’s mission to keep the Sharks and the Jets apart.
DT: What was it like going to the Oscars—and then winning?
RM: George was my date to the Oscars. And we made up sour-grape speeches because we were sure we were going to lose. My big contender was Judy Garland for her role in Judgment at Nuremberg, and I was absolutely certain she was going to win. But I won! It’s very meaningful when a Hispanic actor wins—and I was only the third in history.
DT: How do you feel when you hear Leonard Bernstein’s music today?
RM: Oh God, the music! My stomach turns and I get chills and goose bumps. I’m so proud and honored to be a part of such an amazing and bold experiment.
DT: An experiment?
RM: When, in any venue, was the classic story of Romeo and Juliet turned upside down into something as extraordinary as West Side Story? It was astounding. The film is forever. DT
Photos from top: Moreno in her dressing room in 2011, by Mike LaMonica; Moreno in West Side Story, courtesy of 20th Century FOX