Just one month after winning the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award (link below), Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy award winner, Rita Moreno (“The King & I,” “Singin’ In The Rain,” “The Electric Company”) made a special appearance at the United Palace in New York to help kick-off a screening of one of her best know, and one of the top-50 films of all time, West Side Story.
As part of famed writer (“In The Heights”) and actor (“Merrily We Roll Along”) Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Sunday Movies at the Palace” series, Moreno appeared at the theater just blocks from her childhood home in Washington Heights (when she was known as Rosita Delores Alverio) to discuss her Oscar-winning role as Anita and some of the lesser-known hijinks, and stressors that went on behind the camera — that in many ways helped form it into what is now one of the most celebrated films of all time.
The last time I met Moreno, it was in the early ’90s at a special performing arts education course at Adelphi University. I gushed about my love for the musical, West Side Story, to which she quipped in a very friendly, but serious tone, “Just don’t call me Chita Rivera.” (Rivera originated the role on Broadway).
Now, some 20 years later, I realized just how insightful those words were as she, and the rest of the cast, faced both challenges and opportunities in transforming the Bernstein/Sondheim/Robbins/Laurents show (which, believe it or not, was met with a lukewarm response in its first production), into the iconic film it is today.
First of course, was the effort it took to winning the role, as she told the audience:
Rita Moreno on Winning The Role of Anita:[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIVvtEFUMxc]
Among her tales, Moreno spoke about the end of the song “America” where the female dancers pose, hanging from their male counter-parts, much like a figurehead mounted to the front of the ship. However, Moreno said that Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, was wearing a silk mohair suit, so every time they would do the take she would slowly slip off. After “about 26 takes” the cast wanted to kill her, but they finally got it right!
Similarly, about that number, Moreno said that the set was built to be as real as possible, including a tar “roof,” so sometimes a “shoe would stick, and stay where you left it.”
She also shed light on the famous leather bracelets worn by the Sharks throughout the film. Moreno said that Chakiris found them one day in a porn store and brought one to the set. Well, it may have been 1961, but a great idea is, well a great idea, and the bracelets made their way into the film.
However, it wasn’t all playful fun as she admitted to an often long, and grueling filming process. Some days it was so hot, they would have ice buckets off set for their feet and cold “shammys” to cool down their necks. Take after take, choreographer Jerome Robbins was so obsessed with getting everything “perfect” that it eventually led him to get fired from the film. A move Moreno says is apparent, at least to her, in the famous “Dance at the Gym” scene – the one major dance sequence he did not end up completing.
A part of our cultural identity, I was struck by the facts of the film (racial tensions) vs. the reality of the evening. The film was shown in English, with Spanish subtitles, with a mix of audience members of all colors and backgrounds in attendance.
I’m by no means saying that these problems no longer exist, but I did grin and join in as the gigantic, packed theater in Washington Heights started snapping their fingers along with both the Sharks and the Jets in the film’s famous opening sequence.
Being an optimist, maybe “There’s a time for us. Some day a time for us. Time together with time to so spare. Time to learn, Time to care. Some day, somewhere.”
Rita Moreno wins the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award on January 18, 2014:
For more information about the “Sunday Movies at the Palace with Lin-Manuel Miranda,” visit: