She Still Likes It Here in America

As 'West Side Story' turns 50, Rita Moreno shares her memories of the role that made her a star.

by Mary Kate Frank
Rita Moreno in West Side Story
Photograph: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

It’s the musical that set Romeo and Juliet dancing through New York’s Hell’s Kitchen—and sent a generation of girls’ hearts racing. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Broadway hit turned movie West Side Story, two collector’s editions of the film will be released November 15 (MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment; Click here to buy). Both feature newly-restored images, stills and commentary. Here, Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role as Anita, shares her memories.

Q Can you believe it’s been 50 years?

A Yes, because I’m about to be 80! That’s the only way.

Q What do you remember most about the movie?

A It was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. At the time I got the role, I hadn’t danced in 15 years. I remember being intimidated by the enormous talent of the young dancers. [Choreographer] Jerry Robbins would make you do things 10, 20, 30, 40 times. He made us as great as we were capable of being.

Q As a Puerto Rican, how did you feel about the role of the Puerto Rican heroine, Maria, going to Natalie Wood?

A Well, I thought it was strange. Anybody who had brown eyes and brown hair was screen-tested, and it’s possible that they weren’t up to the mark, but I don’t think that was the reason. Natalie was beginning to get a name for herself, though she wasn’t a big, big star yet. On the set, I wasn’t crazy about her. She wasn’t friendly. Nothing about her behavior was wrong, just distant. Now I suspect she felt out of her element, and she was.

Q Early in your career, it seems as if you were just dropped into any ethnic role. Were you worried you’d never break free of that typecasting?

A I thought of it every two minutes. I spoke better English than most young actors, because it was important to me to communicate. That’s one of the things that were so frustrating. You wait for a job, and you wait and you wait. Then you get one, and you’re jubilant—until you get the script and see you’re playing a slave girl from Ethiopia. I have been a Gypsy, an Arabian girl, an Indian girl, and of course all of these required an accent, which was so hurtful and damaging. It began to distort my image of myself. I was the utility ethnic.

Q Tell us about your new one-woman show, Life Without Makeup, now playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

A It is an unvarnished look at my life, starting with my arrival in America. We have five musical numbers and some wonderful dancing. I have a brand-new left knee, so I call it “sort of, kind of dancing.”

Q On top of that, you’re filming the second TV season of Happily Divorced, playing Fran Drescher’s mom. How do you do it all?

A I feel like this year’s Betty White! I am just flying. It is so much fun. 


Want MORE? Check out our Web-exclusive extended interview with Rita for more on West Side Story, her struggles in Hollywood and her new one-woman show.

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First Published October 25, 2011

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