Rita Moreno’s Story Goes Beyond the West Side

The words “West Side Story” and Rita Moreno remain forever linked, after the Puerto Rican-American actress stole the show — and won an Academy Award — playing Anita in the 1961 musical film. Nearly 85, Moreno’s career has thrived for six consecutive decades, with her earning an additional Tony, Emmy and Grammy for her stage, screen and musical performances.

Still working and paving the way for minority performers, Moreno’s latest projects include a new Netflix show, a Latino-family remake of classic sitcom “One Day at a Time.” True to her roots, she is performing her own dubbing for the show’s Spanish version.

Preparing for upcoming holiday performances with the Las Vegas Philharmonic on December 3 and 4 at The Smith Center, Moreno recently chatted with us about her impressive career.

You’re one of just 12 performers to receive a Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy, yet you started from humble beginnings, born to a seamstress and farmer in Puerto Rico. What has been the key to your success?

I’m guessing it has a great deal to do with perseverance. Obviously talent has something to do with it. I think I have an especially strong character, and I learned from my mommy that when you fall down, you get up and keep moving forward.

“West Side Story” is such a classic movie. Can you describe what it was like being involved with this film?

“West Side Story” has given me a legacy that you can’t buy. It is certainly one of the most fabulous experiences I’ve ever had in my professional life. The funny part of it is that I was convinced that nobody was going to see this movie. I thought No. 1, there are all these people singing in high voices, like “Tonight, Tonight,” and No. 2, the costumes didn’t have one spangle on them, nothing shiny or bling-y. If anything, they were on the drab side. I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to come and pay $5 for this’ - at the time, that was huge. Boy, was I wrong.

There are many complicated dance scenes in “West Side Story.” What was it like preparing for those?

Really hard. The dancing was extremely difficult and wasn’t the kind of dancing I had ever done before. I was a Spanish dancer. That and jazz, which was being done in “West Side Story,” were worlds and worlds apart. Jerome Robbins the choreographer was a serious taskmaster. It damn near killed me.

You’ve spoken before about frustrations with receiving stereotypical roles as a Puerto Rican actress. How did you handle this?

I handled it with anything but aplomb. It was hurtful, and it was in a way damaging to me emotionally. I had a very difficult time with that.

Has this gotten better over the years?

It’s gotten a lot better. The door’s no longer ajar. But it’s certainly not wide open yet. The next task and challenge will be to have enough writers who are also Hispanic, and I would say that also about the black community. I get asked constantly by younger people, ‘Now that Hispanic actors are working more, how come we don’t get nominated more?’ The answer isn’t complicated. The answer is we don’t have the roles that would earn those kinds of accolades.

Your career has spanned stage, screen and musical performances. Do you prefer any forms of performing over others?

I love them all. I love performing. I’m about to be 85 in December and I feel like the luckiest woman on Earth.

“Home for the Holidays with Rita Moreno” will run at The Smith Center on December 3 and 4. For tickets and more information, visit: www.thesmithcenter.com/event/home-for-the-holidays-with-rita-moreno/

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