Rita Moreno remembers West Side Story's bold, subversive 'America'
In 1961, Rita Moreno achieved movie immortality with her performance as the no-nonsense Anita in West Side Story. Set within a vibrant Puerto Rican community in New York City (though filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles), the film won 10 Oscars, including best supporting actress for Moreno and best picture.
The actress, now 85 and earning raves for her work on Netflix’s One Day at a Time, talked to EW about the barnstorming song-and-dance number “America,” in which she jousts with her boyfriend (George Chakiris) about the pros and cons of their adopted home.
[Editor’s note: This is an extended version of a Q&A with Rita Moreno published in the print edition of Entertainment Weekly. In that piece, we mistakenly referred to the character Anita as a “Puerto Rican immigrant.” But since Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since 1898, that word was misused. We regret the error.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you ever get tired of being asked about West Side Story?
RITA MORENO: Of course not, never. It’s lovely to talk about it.
Had you seen the Broadway production of West Side Story?
Yes. Chita Rivera was doing it, who of course was nothing less than brilliant. Then the film came along, and one of the first names that came up was mine. I had been considered for the musical, and it’s possible that they wanted me for Maria [the lead role Natalie Wood played in the film]. If you saw me in The King and I, I had that angelic, virginal face. But I got cold feet. When I saw it on the stage, I thought, “Oh, boy, what a mistake.” But when the movie came around, I had grown into Antia. And they auditioned the world — any girl with dark hair and dark eyes was a candidate.
What do you notice when you watch the movie now?
The dialogue is dated, but it was dated when we shot it. I’d think, “God, old farts are writing this.” But the musical numbers are just so delicious.
“America,” especially, is so unbound and energetic, isn’t it?
Unfettered! It’s a killer show-stopper. And you have to credit [choreographer and co-director] Jerome Robbins, though he absolutely drove the dancers. Wow, how cruel he could be.
That’s been said.
A lot of the dancers hated him — but loved him. He would think nothing of making us do one step over and over until we broke down in tears or pulled something. Shin splints for days. He was a tough and demanding daddy, but if you got a smile out of him, you floated on air for days.
Did you suffer any injuries from working on the film?
Well, I went to a doctor once because of the snap kick. You don’t just lift your leg up high but you snap it. You snap your knee, then it goes up. I went to an orthopod. He said to me, “How old are you?” I was older than a lot of the other dancers. I was 30. And the doctor said, “Oh, you’re just getting old.” Jerry Robbins loved hearing that!
How long did it take to shoot the musical number?
“America” took at least five days of actual filming. We shot the whole movie at the Goldwyn Studios. The set for America was huge. We had big tenement rooftops. They were full soundstages. The lights were insanely hot because it was in Panivision, and in Panavision, they use much brighter lights.
You must have been sweating.
Up a storm. Between takes they had buckets of ice water with shammies for us. And my stocking rotted very quickly because of the sweat. It was murder.
Was that your real hair?
That was a wig, my darling. They nailed that damn thing to my head. My head was so sore at the end of every day. They make anchors with bobby pinsm and then when they put the wig on, they take a hair pin and hook it to the other side of the wig to the spit curls. My scalp was sometimes absolutely red.
What are your memories about that dress?
Oh, the lavender dress. It’s not a very blingy costume — we didn’t use that word then — but it’s so iconic. I remember the shoes kept flying off whenever I did a high kick. But they were very cute, that’s what was important.
What was it like dancing with George Chakiris?
Let me tell you something about George as a dancer. He is such an elegant dancer! I don’t think people see that, they’re so busy with the fire and the sauce. He is every bit as elegant as Fred Astaire was. So when he put that f—ing suit on with the black shark skin and the purple shirt, he was to die over. I want to ask you to look at how he does the steps and how the other dancers do the steps. Compare them; he is so elegant, oh my goodness. And last I checked, he’s still taking ballet class.
You two are still in touch?
Yes, definitely. He’s one of my dearest friends. We became like brother and sister on that film. And aren’t we great together? We laughed until I wet my hose all the time. He has a very naughty sense of humor.
Oh really? Can you give me an example of that?
Here’s a great one. Jerry [Robbins] wouldn’t let the Sharks and the Jets socialize on the set or during rehearsal. He wanted a very tense atmosphere. One day the Jets showed up, and Russ Tamblyn had some T-shirts made up that said “Jets.” And the Sharks were furious. So George wanted to either equal that or top it. He was taking a walk on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. Back then, and even today, it was full of porny places and sexual toy places. He just walked into one and bought a whole bunch of leather wristbands. And Jerry flipped — he loved it. And it stayed in the movie. From a porny shop. It was so marvelous. All the Shark girls went bananas.
The lyrics focus on the virtues of living in America versus Puerto Rico. As a Puerto Rican, how did you feel about that?
It’s interesting. In the play, Anita sings, “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropical diseases.” When I got the part in the movie, I thought, “I cannot do this to my little island.” But before I said anything, to my great relief, the line was rewritten. It became “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.” Which at least is more benign. Stephen Sondheim had to have rewritten it, God bless him.
Have you ever gotten pushback from Puerto Ricans?
No, they love the movie. They love the Sharks. Although the then-mayor of San Juan was a woman named Felisa de Gautier, and she condemned the movie: “Gangs? That’s terrible!” She was an outlier.
What was the trickiest part of “America” to nail?
The end. The girls end up on the boys’ shoulders. But we hadn’t counted on me wearing a silk dress and George wearing a silk jacket. Slippery! Plus, George’s shoulders slope. Plus, my ass was bigger than his shoulder. We did an inordinate amount of takes because I would land on his shoulder and slide off. You could hear me: “Oh…oh…oh…s—!”
What was your solution?
One cheek was sitting on his shoulder. He held me with one hand, and my leg was stuck into his back to get balance. I stabbed him with that shoe. But we got the shot!