BWW Reviews: Stage and Screen Legend Rita Moreno Talks 'Divorced,' New Show & More
Actress Rita Moreno's voice glides over the phone and into my ear, lilting, resonant and relaxed. "Hello," she says brightly, as I introduce myself, "thank you for calling."
I'm interviewing the mega-star of stage and screen in advance of her new, one-woman play, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup which opens at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on September 7.
The show is the latest of several successes for the soon-to-be-octogenarian. She's also in TV Land's new hit sit-com "Happily Divorced," with Fran Dresher, playing Fran's mother Dori. (The show just got picked up for a second season.) And a 50th Anniversary, limited edition Blu-ray boxed set of West Side Story will be out in November. But, most importantly, she recently received the prestigious American National Medal of the Arts for her remarkable achievements on stage and screen; achievements which helped pave the way for Latinos in the entertainment industry.
BroadwayWorld readers will likely know Moreno for her Tony award-winning turn as Googie Gomez in the 1975 production of The Ritz and the screen version of The King and I (Moreno was Tuptim). But she is best known for her multi-layered and dynamic portrayal of Anita in the film version of West Side Story, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Later, she would also add Emmy and Grammy wins, making her the first and only Hispanic woman to win all four awards.
As we begin to talk, there's no trace of the thickly accented, stereotypical Latina characters that she inevitably played in her early years in Hollywood and on Broadway. Those roles came complete with the requisite brown pancake makeup (Ms. Moreno's complexion is light) and either buckskins (she played a lot of squaws) or femme fatale low-cut blouses and tops with accompanying red lipstick, and broad strokes of black eyeliner. Her new show, Life Without Makeup, boldly defies any need for these ethnic affectations.
"In West Side Story, I mean George Chakiris [Bernardo] and me, especially in front of the Shark kids [the white gang], looked like we had been dipped in a bucket of mud. So I kept trying to tell them, you know what, we're all different colors. Some of us are blonde, some of us are redheads and some of us are fair-skinned. Some of us are very, very dark. We are many, many things, so why should we all be the same color? The make-up man really didn't get it. So I love the title, Life Without Makeup."
She pauses for a moment then says, "You know, that title has a lot of different meanings. People in show business especially understand. Tony Taccone, who has written the script - he's also the artistic director at Berkeley Rep - came up with the title. It's me - my life without any clothes on, as it were. I just love it."
"How did you come to be working with Tony Taccone on this show about your life?"
"I had done Master Class at Berkeley Rep, which was about Maria Callas. After that I played a very out-of-the-box part as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. I played a Southern lady! But you know that's what actors do - and why not? That's why you're called an actor. And when I was in rehearsals, Tony and I would get together to have lunch between rehearsals and he would say, 'You really need to tell your story, because you are almost like a dinosaur in the sense that your kind of show business doesn't exist anymore.'" She laughs at this. "He said 'I think it's probably a very fascinating story.' And I would say - Oh, God, it's too daunting - the thought of going back. And I really kept fighting it and finally about two years ago he said, 'Hey, dear - you're 77. You better think about this. You need to do this now or forget about it.' And I thought about it and I thought, you know, he's right!
And that's when we got together and I started to tell him my life story, with him on a laptop and his assistant on a laptop, and a tape machine, and we worked on it for about a year, just talking about my life - because when you're 79 you have a lot of life to talk about."
And what a life. Rita Moreno came to this country as a five-year-old, leaving Puerto Rico, the bougainvillea-filled "island of tropical breezes" for the steel gray granite of Manhattan's Spanish Harlem. She lived there with her mother, who found work as a seamstress in the many sweatshops of New York. Many Puerto Ricans took this route and, in fact, it could have been the story of her character Anita in West Side Story.
I ask if the show starts from her breaking into show business at the age of 11, and make a note to ask if Life Without Makeup will delve into her love affair with Marlon Brando.
"The show starts from the very beginning," she says. "You see a picture of the boat I came in on from Puerto Rico in 1936. I mean it really starts from the moment that I arrived in this country."
"You have a picture of the actual boat?" I ask.
"Yes, we have a picture of it. And we not only have the boat, I have the ship's registry of passengers with my mother's name and my name on it. It was given to me as a gift from the Hall of Records of New York City."
"What a treasure! So you cover quite a bit of material in the show. It must have stirred up a lot of things. How deep did you have to go?
"Oh, my dear, there were a lot of tears shed. A lot of it had to do with my mother, interestingly enough -- and coming here from Puerto Rico. She was really a rather remarkable young woman when she came here with me. A lot of things didn't go exactly right. You know it was not a good thing to be a Latina - a Puerto Rican person -- when I came to this country. It was very, very hard. So when I had those scenes in West Side Story where the kids called me bad names it wasn't new to me."
I jump to a quick aside in line with her treatment as Latina. "What are your thoughts on the whole immigration situation in the United States?"
"Oh - I'm two things at once - I'm terribly saddened and I'm enraged. And you know it really breaks my heart when I hear about students who have done so fabulously well and are in danger of being sent back to a country they don't even know. I mean doesn't that break your heart? You know the DREAM Act [which allows undocumented immigrants access to private student loans and in-state tuition fees, among other things] is such a wonderful thing - what a brave and noble thing that is. Now I heard today, on NPR I think, that part of the DREAM Act was being passed just today in California - did you hear that?
"Yes," I reply. "A portion was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown."
"Well, God bless Governor Moonbeam," she says and we laugh at her use of the governor's old nickname. "Now I am elated and hopeful."
She doesn't say so here, but she has also contributed to this hopefulness, often lecturing on the value of diversity to our culture. She's known as a pioneer to the Hispanic community and in fact the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) named their lifetime achievement award after her.
Getting back to her new one-woman show, I ask if Googie Gomez from The Ritz and Anita from West Side Story will make an appearance in Life Without Makeup.
"Both of them will," she says with conspiratorial excitement.
"Are there other tantalizing tidbits you can share?"
"The first act ends with my relationship with Marlon Brando."
Ah, Brando. "That's a really interesting way to end the first act. Would you care to elaborate?"
"Well, it's interesting for a very particular reason but I don't want to give it away."
"I guess I'll have to wait until opening night," I say, slightly dejected.
"That's right!" she says with a delighted laugh. "Well, I honestly hope that you enjoy the play. I think people will undoubtedly identify with a number of things that happened to me because you know there's a lot of humor in failure. And boy, did I have failures and boy, were they funny. So you know it's poignant and it's sad. Some of it is almost tragic and much of it is very funny. I was thrilled to have Tony Taccone at my side for this. He really is something."
I agree with her. Under his direction the company has helped send five shows to Broadway: American Idiot, Bridge & Tunnel, In the Next Room (or the vibrator play), Passing Strange and Wishful Drinking. "Berkeley Rep is always so fresh, so new, so cutting edge," I add.
Rita replies, "They really are cutting edge and that's why I was thrilled to work on this with Tony. He's the one who said, 'I think we could do something really marvelous here because you had an astonishing life.' Now I'll tell you something that will make you laugh. After I did the very first workshop I put my script down and I looked at the audience who were only ten people who are producing our show - I put my script down and I said - wow- that's quite a life! And I meant it - and I said, Gee, I had no idea I was so interesting! That made everyone laugh!"
On that wonderful note we ended the interview. It's said that on the night that she won the Oscar, Spanish Harlem erupted in cheers, with people flinging open their windows and shouting, "She got it! She did it!" It's safe to say that the girl from Puerto Rico and Spanish Harlem continues to "do it." At almost eighty, this living legend is still wowing the crowds. Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup is only the latest chapter in her celebrated career. Who knows - maybe Broadway will be next - again.
Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup
September 2 - October 30, 2011
Berkeley Repertory Theater
Written by Tony Taccone
Developed by Rita Moreno and Tony Taccone
Staged and directed by David Gilligan
Choreographed by Lee Martino
Photo courtesy of Michael LaMonica