BWW Interview: RITA MORENO at Ordway Center For Performing Arts
Pretty nearly everyone knows who Rita Moreno is. Or should. When asked, if a person says they do not know, just suggest maybe they've seen her performances in "West Side Story" (where she earned her first Oscar playing Anita in 1961 for Best Supporting Actress), as a performer on "The Electric Company" on PBS in the early 1970s, on the current reboot of "One Day at a Time" (was Netflix, will be on POP TV for its fourth season) or in dozens of other TV shows or films over her more than seven decade career. Yes, seven DECADES.
Moreno, a native Puerto Rican, moved to New York City at age five with her mother and after taking dance lessons was already performing on Broadway at age 13. Her career moved on to more stage and film work as she went through her teens and early 20s, though she often struggled with the parts she was offered, that often were stereotypical Latina characters that she felt were insulting but as she said, "It's called paying the rent."
Now, at nearly 88 years of age, Moreno's working as much as ever - perhaps more - and happy with her life's work, which includes being one of the few "EGOTs" - a winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar (she's got multiple, too). "I think of it as the career that will not die," she said during a recent phone interview. "They kick it, and they bully it, and they break the bones, then the bones heal and I get up again. What's to complain about? I'm the luckiest Puerto Rican woman in the States."
Moreno's one-woman show was to play tonight (Dec. 3, 2019) at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts concert stage but has been postponed to sometime in 2020 due to illness that has caused laryngitis. She was ill but still able to speak last week when interviewed and was hoping to kick the cold that was more than a cold in time to make her show in Saint Paul. Ticket holders will be notified when the show is rescheduled.
And Moreno will be ready for them if her busy schedule does not delay the performance yet again; originally the show was to be held in summertime of 2019 and was rescheduled to accommodate her television filming schedule for her role on "One Day at a Time." She mentioned she's also currently appearing as a series guest on "Bless This Mess" until "One Day" picks up again. She's also an executive producer for Steven Spielberg's new film version of "West Side Story," due to hit cinemas in December 2020.
Moreno is also acting in the film.
"Most people assume, 'How nice, he's paying tribute to her and giving her a cameo,' - Nope! It's a real, honest to God part," she said. "I'm so excited, I cannot tell you. It's outrageous to - I'm about to be 88 - and all of this good stuff is happening to me. What's not to love?"
Her character, Valentina, is the widow of "Doc," who owned the candy store that lead character Tony worked at in this version. Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner wrote this part for her in the revamped story thanks to his husband suggesting Moreno should be in the film. She says Kushner became a fan of her original work in the 1961 version, and they became fast friends during this new movie's filming. "He's a bit of a fan!" she said. "And it just kills him that I had an eight-year relationship with Marlon Brando. It just kills him!"
She suggests learning more about that part of her life by reading her book; but since it's out of circulation now, she said you can listen to the Amazon/Audible recording of her reading the book. She says listening to her read it makes the funny parts funnier and the sad parts extremely sad because it's her telling her own story. (Editor's note: I'm now listening to her book and recommend checking it out.)
If you're more of a watcher than a reader/listener, you're in luck. Moreno's life story will be featured in a new documentary by producers Norman Lear and Brent Miller, coming out sometime in 2020. She said she does not know when and she tries not to think about it or she'd want to control it.
She is in control of her stage show, so she is enthusiastic about every aspect, including songs from the Broadway songbook, the American songbook, Spanish songs like Aguinaldo (Christmas songs), a rap song that she co-wrote about New York and stories from her career and life. "Always stories. I do funny things," she said. "Or funny things happen to me."
Moreno is a funny person and very down-to-earth on the phone, so one can imagine her show will be just as she seems. Her 88th birthday looming on December 11, she's still passionate about her work and staying active. She said her good looks are her Puerto Rican genes, but she works to keep her brain active, too, by walking backwards and writing with her left hand as an exercise. "You've got to try it!" she exclaimed. "It's good for the brain!"
She hopes to have another opportunity to do another film despite her age as she loves acting so much - and that she's paid to do it is a bonus. She also appreciates the fact that opportunities continue to come to her now - especially roles that she's excited to play.
"I'm thrilled, grateful, I'm envious sometimes, because I think why couldn't this have happened to me earlier in my life. But you know what? It's happened. And it's happening. And I'm very grateful for that.
"It has been spectacular and wonderful. I only wish my mom were here to see what all that struggle and sacrifice was about."
Keep an eye on ordway.org for updates on the rescheduled show.
Rita Moreno, courtesy of the Ordway.