Rita Moreno has admitted that she almost backed out of her Oscar-winning role of Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story because of a song verse that was ‘disparaging to Puerto Rico.’
The Puerto Rico-born actress opened up about why she was on the verge of quitting the film during an interview on Good Morning America Monday, saying she took issue with the original lyrics in Anita’s song ‘America.’
‘My character Anita is a person who loves America and wants nothing to do with Puerto Rico, and the verse of the song originally was really quite disparaging to Puerto Rico,’ Moreno, 89, explained.
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Candid: Rita Moreno, 89, opened up about why she almost backed out of her Oscar-winning role of Anita in 1961 film West Side Story during an interview on Good Morning America
Looking back: The Puerto Rico-born actress explained that an original verse in the musical’s song ‘America’ was ‘quite disparaging to Puerto Rico’
‘I completely forgot that, and then I got the part after working very hard to get it, screen tests all over the place, and I realized, oh my God, this verse to “America,” I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do this to my people.’
The 1961 film starring Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria was the first adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it was written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
The production is about the love and tension between the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, as they fight for control of their neighborhood on the Upper West Side.
Moreno said she was about to call her agent to say she couldn’t be a part of the film because of the verse, but then fate intervened.
‘It just happened — honestly — that just about that time Stephen Sondheim changed the lyric… and made it possible for me — not knowing, of course — that I could now do that film,’ she recalled. ‘I was heartbroken. I thought my agent was going to kill me.’
Fate: Moreno said she was about to call her agent and drop out of the film when composer Stephen Sondheim changed the lyric
Making history: Moreno went on to become the first Latin American actress to win an Oscar for her role in the film
In an interview with NPR last week, Moreno said she was originally supposed to sing: ‘Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases.’
But then Sondheim, at the request of a producer, changed the lyric to: ‘Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion, let it sink back in the ocean.’
West Side Story scored 10 Academy Awards after its release, including best picture in 1962. Moreno became the first Latin American actress to win an Oscar when she took home the award for best supporting actress that year.
She went on to make history again as the first Latin American person to earn an EGOT — a designation given to the few performers who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
Moreno paved the way for younger generations, but she told Good Morning America that she never had anyone to look up to when she was younger.
‘There was no such thing as a role model — not for children like me,’ she said. ‘There were no mentors for people like me. Everybody always says, “Who supported you? Who helped you?” Nobody. That’s how it was.’
The actress explained that she has never considered herself a ‘tough person,’ noting: ‘I’m a resilient person.
Remake: Moreno is slated to appear in Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated adaption of West Side Story. She plays Valentina (pictured), a reconceived version of the store owner Doc
Fan club: Ariana DeBose (center) has taken on the role of Anita in the remake, and Moreno gushed that she is ‘wonderful’
Looking back: Moreno (pictured this week) said she never had a role model or mentor growing up, explaining that it made her ‘a resilient person’
Sixty years after West Side Story was released, she is slated to appear in Steven Spielberg’s highly-anticipated adaption of the musical.
Moreno plays Valentina, a reconceived version of the store owner Doc, while actress Ariana DeBose has taken on the role of Anita in the remake.
‘The girl who plays my part, Anita, is wonderful,’ she gushed, adding: ‘I have a part. I have a real part in it. I even sing one song. I can’t believe it.’
Moreno has previously spoken about how she and her other castmates had to wear brownface while filming the first West Side Story adaptation.
‘We all had the same color makeup, it was a very different time,’ she shared during a 2017 interview on the ‘In the Thick’ podcast.
‘I remember saying to the makeup man one day — because it was like putting mud on my face, it was really dark and I’m a fairly fair Hispanic — and I said to the makeup man one day, “My God! Why do we all have to be the same color? Puerto Ricans are French and Spanish…” And it’s true, we are very many different colors, we’re Taino Indian, we are black some of us.
‘And the makeup man actually said to me, “What? Are you a racist?”‘ she recalled. ‘I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t come back with an answer.’