From her earliest days preparing to play Anita in the original 1961 “West Side Story,” Rita Moreno has never been averse to script changes. In fact, if it weren’t for a little update to the lyrics for “America,” the show’s most memorable dance number and Anita’s big star moment, she may never have accepted the role that came to define her career. After landing the role in the movie, Moreno began preparing using the original Broadway script, with a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. When she came to the lyric “Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases,” her heart sank.
“I went, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this to my people.’ I was on the verge of calling my agent and saying, ‘I have to pull out,’ knowing that he would just scream at me and not understand what principle had to do with it,” Moreno said during a recent phone interview. “Two days after I made that decision, I got the new script with the new words. ‘Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean.’ And I wonder, to this day, who might have replaced me after I pulled out.”
Moreno kept the part. The rest, as they say, is showbiz history.
That charming anecdote, and many not so charming ones, pepper the action in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” a documentary about Moreno’s decades-spanning career. From her childhood dancing on vaudeville stages to a mid-career renaissance in HBO’s gritty prison drama “Oz,” Moreno’s career has truly stood the test of time. Now, with a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s new “West Side Story,” featuring an updated script by Tony-winning playwright Tony Kushner, Moreno’s star is on the rise yet again. And just like her first turn as Anita, it took some savvy script changes to get Moreno on board.
“I was a little leery. I thought Steven Spielberg…Okay. He happens to be my favorite director. But Tony Kushner, I thought, ‘He’s kind of dark,'” said the actress. Spielberg was eager to bring Moreno on as an executive producer, which she eventually became, but it wasn’t immediately clear if there would be a part for her. “The Doc part was really almost nonexistent. So it was [Kushner’s] partner [Mark Harris] who said to him, ‘What are you going to do about Doc?’ And it was [Harris] who said, ‘Why don’t you get Rita Moreno to play the widow, Doc’s widow?'”
The new character, Valentina, adds a lovely maternal relationship for Tony, as well as the whole neighborhood. In Kushner’s reimagining, Valentina has seen these kids grow up, knows their parents, and faced discrimination for an interracial relationship long before Tony ever set eyes on Maria. It’s a clever update that makes Tony more sympathetic, and Moreno’s presence in the film feels like a warm embrace from the original film.
“Obviously, I could not play Anita, though I probably would’ve said, being the ham that I am, ‘Well, let me try.’ Put on a wig. Such a ham.”
One of the most painful scenes in “West Side Story” has not been altered very much at all. At the end of the film, when Anita arrives at Doc’s to deliver a message to Tony from Anita, she finds herself surrounded by the angry mob of Jets, who would assault her were it not for Valentina’s intervention. As she reveals so bravely in her documentary, Moreno’s decades in Hollywood were marred by racism, misogyny, sexual harassment and assault. The moment when she, as Valentina, breaks up the teenage mob to save Anita from certain peril, feels like a giant middle finger to all of the hate and violence she experienced as a young woman in Hollywood.
It was a difficult scene for Moreno, but not for the reasons one might imagine.
“It was the only scene I had with Anita. And it was very difficult for me. I can’t imagine that would’ve been easy for Ariana [DeBose], who is wonderful and such a terrific dancer — a better dancer than I ever was,” Moreno said. “But to look into that face truly confused me. It was surreal. I kept saying, ‘No, no, no. I’m Anita.’ I honestly don’t think I ever was able to get into that part of the scene as completely as I wished I had. It was creepy in a funny way. Something was not right. Something in my brain is telling me there’s something wacky about this. But she is Anita, kiddo, get used to it.”
Some things may have changed, but many have stayed the same. Moreno is particularly delighted that an ad-lib from her friend, Yvonne Othon (later Wilder), has stayed in the lyrics to “America” all these years later.
“I love it when I sing, ‘I like the isle of Manhattan,’ and my friend in the chorus, she says, ‘I know you do!’ And now it’s become a part of that number. Every production does it. That wasn’t part of it. She just said that when we were recording.”
It appears “West Side Story,” like Moreno, is a living, breathing piece of show business history.