Public Radio from UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris remember the original 'West Side Story'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Now we're going to hear an excerpt of our 2001 interview with Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita. She was one of the few actors playing a Puerto Rican who was actually from Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RITA MORENO: The reason was that there simply weren't enough Hispanic - forget Puerto Rican - Hispanic male and female dancers at the time who could do the kind of professional job that was needed for Jerome Robbins' choreography, which is, you might have noticed, extremely complex and very difficult. There just weren't any. The reason there weren't any, I am surmising, Is that a lot of Latin kids - Latino kids in those days didn't have the money to take those kind of classes. They were a lot like in a way like the street dancers years later, the kids who danced on their backs and all that kind of stuff, who had talent but didn't have the training. So as a result, the Sharks - gosh, there were just a few of us, really, who were truly Latino who were able to get the part.

TERRY GROSS: Did you have to do anything to look more, act more or sound more Puerto Rican?

MORENO: They made me use an accent, which I wasn't thrilled about because a lot of us obviously don't have them. The thing that really bothered me the most is that they put the same very muddy, dark-colored makeup on every Shark girl and boy. And that really made me very upset. And I tried to get that changed. And I said, look at us. We're all, you know, many, many different colors. Some of us are very white. Some of us are olive-skinned. Some of us actually have Black blood. Some of us are Taino Indian, which is the original Puerto Rican. And nobody paid attention, and that was that. I had no choice in the matter. But I was not happy. And when I saw the film recently and saw George Chakiris, this beautiful guy, Greek guy (laughter) who looked like he had fallen into a bucket of mud, I just started - I started to giggle.

GROSS: Rita Moreno, I want to ask you about another scene. There's a scene toward the end of the movie after your boyfriend Bernardo has been stabbed. Maria, the Natalie Wood character, asks you to send a message to her boyfriend Tony. And this is right after the "I Have A Love" duet.

MORENO: Right.

GROSS: And so you go to...

MORENO: The candy store.

GROSS: ...To the candy store to give a message to the owner there. And all the Jets are hanging out there. And they start taunting you, and the implication is that they've raped you, too. I think that's the implication.

MORENO: Oh, yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

MORENO: Yes, if it had been done a few years ago, that's what would have happened.

GROSS: Right. But it's all kind of stylized and choreographed. Can you talk about that scene?

MORENO: Gee. I'm glad you brought that up because that was a seminal scene for me, and some interesting and personal, emotional pond scum came to the (laughter) surface. We rehearsed that number for - as we did with everything in that movie - for weeks. And then we got to the shooting which took about - I would say about seven days. And at some point, having the boys constantly cursing me out and throwing me around and calling me things like spic and garlic mouth and a pierced ear apparently opened up some wounds that I thought had been healed years and years and years before then.

And I remember that, at that point - and I think it was in the middle of shooting, this - some part of that scene. I stopped, and I sat down at the stool at the candy counter, put my head on my arms, and started to sob and cry. And I could not stop. I must have cried for about 45 minutes and just - there was no consoling me. I was inconsolable. And it's funny. As I speak of it, I start getting tears in my eyes. And the boys came to me saying, oh, Rita, please, you know we love you. You know we love you. Please don't cry. Please stop. Oh, the audience is going to hate us. And I couldn't stop.

And finally, Bob Wise called lunch. And you know, I calmed down, obviously, after lunch, and we got it all done. But there is a huge piece of my soul in that scene. It's all of the terrible things that happened to me - not like that, but it was symbolic of all of the terrible things that have happened - that happened to me when I was younger that apparently just inundated my soul and seared my soul. And I was as surprised as anybody.

GROSS: When you were able to start shooting the film again, do you feel like that personal connection deepened your performance? Or did it get in the way of it because it was so upsetting?

MORENO: No, it - no. It didn't get in the way. It - I think it deepened it. And by the time we got to the part of the scene where the doc, the candy store owner, comes in and stops the rape, the symbolic rape, and I go to the door and say, don't you touch me - 'cause I think they were saying something like, don't let her get away. And somebody puts their hand on my shoulder, and I turn around and say, don't you touch me - wow. That was filled with every terrible anger that I have ever experienced in my life - that line. It didn't get in the way.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the choreography that Jerry Robbins worked out for the rape scene?

MORENO: Jerry had an ability, which is rare even now, to choreograph for character. In other words, any step that Anita might do, say, in "America" or in the "Mambo!" at the gym was not a step that he would ever have dreamed of giving to some other character on the other side - for instance, to the Jet, a Jet girl. And he worked that out with us. He was a meticulous, crazy man. He was meticulous with respect to what he wanted. The problem was he didn't always know exactly what he wanted. He just wanted it to be perfect.

And Jerry had several versions of each section of each dance so that, for instance, if you wanted - if you were rehearsing "America" with him, he would - after you did one version, would say, OK, now let me see version B of section 2. So you were really learning anywhere from two to three other dances beside the original one. That's how he worked. And he would watch it and watch it and watch and then say, OK, now let me go back to section 1 and do version A of that. He wanted to get the very best he could out of each section of these dances.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

MORENO: And that's how the rape scene also happened. It was a question of throwing me around. And when they would throw me around, when someone would grab my blouse to try to tear it off, when somebody would lift up my skirts to humiliate me, all that kind of stuff was very, very planned.

DAVIES: Rita Moreno, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2001. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg, is in theaters today. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "AMERICA (FROM WEST SIDE STORY)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story," directed by Steven Spielberg, is in theaters today. And we're listening back to our interviews with two actors who won Academy Awards for their performances in the original 1961 film - George Chakiris, who played Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and Rita Moreno, who played Anita. Terry spoke with her earlier this year when she was the subject of a PBS "American Masters" documentary.

GROSS: Let's start with a scene from "West Side Story" in which you talk about in the documentary. And I want to play an excerpt of the song "America." But before we do, I want to talk about it. So this is a song in which the Puerto Rican men and women are singing about what they think of Puerto Rico. And the women are kind of saying, hey, America is better. And the men are saying, America really mistreats us. So you asked Stephen Sondheim to change a lyric, a line or two, that was in the Broadway show.

MORENO: OK. That's incorrect. I never asked Stephen Sondheim to change lyric.

GROSS: Oh, I thought you say in the film that you did.

MORENO: Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no. I would never have dreamed of doing that at the time. What happened was that I auditioned many times for the role of Anita with my heart in my throat because I hadn't danced in a hundred years, it seemed. And I never really, really thought I would get the part. But I got the part. I was jubilant and thrilled because it's a wonderful part, as you know. And then, just before I signed my contract, I suddenly remembered, to my horror, that the verse to "America" goes like this, (singing) Puerto Rico, you ugly island, island of tropic diseases. And it suddenly occurred to me - oh, my God. I can't sing that. I can't sing that like that in that form. I can't do this. I can't do this to my people.

And I was this close to turning it down with breaking heart. And just about that time, I got the new lyrics for the verse of "America," which had been rewritten by Stephen Sondheim at someone's behest. I'm just guessing it was probably Robert Wise or maybe one of our producers who said - you know what? - that's kind of like poison that line. Can't we change it? And apparently, Stephen Sondheim acquiesced. And he changed it to, (singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean. And that's how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role.

GROSS: Wow. So why don't we hear it? And then we'll talk about how that reverberated. So here is my guest, Rita Moreno, kicking off "America."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion - let it sink back in the ocean.

(LAUGHTER)

MORENO: (As Anita, singing) Always the hurricanes blowing, always the population growing and the money owing and the sunlight screaming.

GROSS: So that was the beginning of "America" from "West Side Story." And my guest is Rita Moreno, who you heard singing in that and who played Anita. So how did that song resonate among your Puerto Rican friends and family, if you had any family then in the U.S.?

MORENO: Actually, it resonated beautifully. The fact that there was a person playing a Puertorriquena in a huge, successful musical was enough for a lot of Hispanics, not just Puerto Ricans, in this country to be thrilled to pieces. The fact that there were mistakes made and colors confused, nationalities, was almost beyond the point. We were just so glad to be paid attention to for a change. There were people, particularly in Puerto Rico, who were not thrilled because they felt that depicting Puerto Ricans as gang members was offensive and insulting.

And what was important about Anita to me - still is - is that Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way. I've never had a role model because there was no such thing then, not - certainly not for little Puerto Rican girls like me. So when people asked, you know, did you have a mentor and all of that, I was like, mentor? Me? Moi? Really? No, no, no, no. So it represented a lot of breakthroughs for young actors of Hispanic origin.

DAVIES: Rita Moreno speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. Coming up, an interview with George Chakiris, who played the leader of the Sharks in the original "West Side Story" film. And we remember former senator and World War II vet Bob Dole. Here's Rita Moreno in the new film adaptation of "West Side Story." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

MORENO: (Singing) There's a place for us somewhere, a place for us - peace and quiet and open air. Wait for us. Somewhere, there's a time for us - someday, a time for us - time together with time to spare, time to learn and time to care. Someday...

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "COOL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new film adaptation of "West Side Story" directed by Steven Spielberg is in theaters today. We're going to hear some of Terry's interview with actor George Chakiris, who won an Academy Award for his performance as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, in the original 1961 film. Here is Chakiris in the war council scene planning a rumble with the Jets.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

RUSS TAMBLYN: (As Riff) We challenge you to a rumble - all out once and for all except...

GEORGE CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) On what terms?

TAMBLYN: (As Riff) Whatever terms you're callin'. You crossed the line once too often.

CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) You started it.

TAMBLYN: (As Riff) Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?

CHAKIRIS: (As Bernardo) Who jumped me the first day I moved here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Who asked you to move here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Who asked you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Move where you're wanted.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Back where you came from.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Spics.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mick.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Wop.

DAVIES: Before he was cast in the film, Chakiris starred in the London production of the show in the role of Riff, the leader of the Jets. Chakiris is of Greek descent. He told Terry in 2001 what he had to do to make himself appear Puerto Rican for the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHAKIRIS: Well, the - one of the things they did to us - I'm very pale (laughter) as a person. So, well, they darkened us, of course, considerably. I - in fact, I remember when we started shooting the prologue, the very first take out on the streets of New York there, Jerry had them come up and say, no, I think he needs to be a little darker.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHAKIRIS: So they made me darker still. So that was one thing that certainly had to be done. And the other thing was the accent, which I think was subtle - I hope, anyway. And as I recall, we took Rita as our guide, so to speak, to make sure that we were sort of on track with that.

GROSS: Well, one of the glorious and silliest things about "West Side Story" is the singing and dancing gang members.

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter).

GROSS: What did Jerome Robbins tell you about the choreography and the kind of choreography he wanted for the gang members? And why would they be dancing in the street?

CHAKIRIS: Well, it was a musical (laughter).

GROSS: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: A compelling reason.

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter) But one of the things that I think Jerry did so brilliantly - and he was, God knows, a brilliant man. And I think genius is not an overblown word to use very directly in describing Jerry. But the way the movement is introduced in the prologue of the film when you first start to see guys dance on the streets of New York - you know? - it's done with a very subtle kind of move and - which is not really a dance move. And then there's another move, you know? And...

GROSS: Yeah. What's happening is that the Jets are walking along the street.

CHAKIRIS: Right.

GROSS: And one of them will kind of, like, jump up in a dancerly move and then keep walking and then...

CHAKIRIS: Or just put his arms out or...

GROSS: Yeah, or just put his arms out.

CHAKIRIS: Very subtle stuff that eventually explodes, if you like, into dance.

GROSS: Exactly.

CHAKIRIS: But we're introduced to it, I think, in a way that allows us - at least, I think - to accept it and not think, oh, my God. Don't they look silly dancing (laughter) in the street, you know?

GROSS: Right.

CHAKIRIS: The theater version started the same way - well, in the sense that they don't start dancing right off the bat. They build up to it. And again, that building up allows it to, quote-unquote, "explode" into the way they feel about their turf and the way they own the street and how the street feels to them and the neighborhood feels to them. It's theirs.

GROSS: Now, you actually shot the movie version of "West Side Story" on the streets of New York, yes?

CHAKIRIS: Right. 68th and Amsterdam was one of the locations. That's where Lincoln Center now stands. And the other location was a playground, which is still there - 110th Street and 2nd Avenue. Those were the two locations.

GROSS: Let's talk about the rumble scene. And this is the scene where the two gangs rumble in a schoolyard. And it's, like, part dance and part a choreographed fight.

CHAKIRIS: Right, right.

GROSS: But there's more dance in it than your average choreographed fight in an action film.

CHAKIRIS: Yes.

GROSS: So everything in it is really quite stylized. Can you talk a little bit about the choreography of it and learning it and what it's like to stab and to be stabbed in this choreographed kind of way?

CHAKIRIS: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, what I'd like to go back to, in answering your question, was doing the theater version of the rumble 'cause, of course, we had to do it eight times a week. I would say it was staged rather than choreographed because there are no dance moves per se, really, in the rumble. There are moves that make sense for a knife fight.

And I remember - and it doesn't - you don't really notice this particular move which I thought was such a wonderful move. You don't notice it as well, I think, in the film as I remember the way it felt, at least, in the stage version. And I, as Riff, had to do this to Bernardo in the stage version. I - it's hard to describe, but I run toward him. I sort of invert myself, and it's sort of - I'm - I get a scissor kind of grip with my legs around his legs. And I bring him down to his knees and then bring up the knife like I'm going to stab him. And then somebody pulls me off. But these were kind of gymnastic things, if you like, although I'm not a gymnast at all. But again, I think the difference in the rumble is it's not - it's staged, but I would not say it's choreographed because there are not dance moves in it.

GROSS: I've heard that some of the actors who tested for parts in the film adaptation of "West Side Story" include Tony Perkins, Warren Beatty, Bobby Darin, Burt Reynolds, Richard Chamberlain and Troy Donahue.

CHAKIRIS: And Robert Redford.

GROSS: And Robert Redford? Really?

CHAKIRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: For which part?

CHAKIRIS: I heard that - I don't know. But I know I've heard that. I don't know if I heard it from Bob, Bob Wise. But I think so.

GROSS: Did you know that all those other people had tested?

CHAKIRIS: Had no idea (laughter) at all, no. And again, going back to this thing when we were doing it in the theater, never dreaming you'd get - I mean, it just never entered our minds that we'd ever be part of this. It just - it was a tremendous thrill and surprise because we were getting news from Los Angeles about, you know, big stars testing - or not - maybe not testing but being considered. I think two of the names that I remember hearing - I think I'm correct. One was Elizabeth Taylor, and one was Elvis Presley. I don't know if those were, in fact, real considerations or not. It was just part of the bits of...

GROSS: Right, interesting.

CHAKIRIS: ...Things in the newspapers that would be put on the bulletin board for us to see at the stage door.

GROSS: Now, you won an Academy Award for your performance as Bernardo.

CHAKIRIS: Right.

GROSS: How did it change your career to get the Academy Award?

CHAKIRIS: Well, before that, I didn't have a career (laughter). I mean, I was doing well enough, I suppose, really. But what it did was it opened doors for the remainder - and still does, oddly enough. It still does. But it changed everything for me, certainly.

DAVIES: George Chakiris, recorded in 2001. Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of "West Side Story" opens in theaters today.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WEST SIDE STORY")

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Tony, singing) Could it be? Yes, it could. Something's coming, something good, if I can wait. Something's coming. I don't know what it is, but it is going to be great. With a click, with a shock - phone will jingle. Door will knock. Open the latch. Something's coming, don't know when, but it's soon. Catch the moon - one-handed catch. Around the corner or whistling down the river, come on, deliver to me.

DAVIES: Coming up, we remember former Senator Bob Dole, who died Sunday at the age of 98. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "IN MY LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.