Rita Moreno Reveals Why She Nearly Turned Down Iconic ‘West Side Story’ Role

by Allison Hambrick
(Photo by Kaye/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In an appearance on The View, iconic EGOT-winning actress Rita Moreno discussed the reason that she almost decided to decline her Oscar role as Anita West Side Story. In 1961, Moreno stepped into the role of Anita after it was originated by Chita Rivera on Broadway in 1957.

According to Moreno, however, this was almost not the case. The original script for the film included song lyrics that Moreno found offensive to her Puerto Rican heritage.

“I was reading this verse that goes like this: ‘Puerto Rico, you ugly island. Island of tropic diseases,’” Moreno explained. “And I thought, ‘I can’t do that to my people.’ I was this close [to quitting], and two days later, I got a script with all the new dialogue, and it was, ‘Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion. Let it sink back in the ocean.’ Not island of tropic diseases!”

Fortunately, these lyrics were omitted from the song “America,” and Moreno chose to accept her role in West Side Story after all. Anita would go on to be her most iconic and well-known character. Given the many accolades received over her six decades in Hollywood, that is no small statement.

A Return to Her Roots

Moreno will once again return to West Side Story with Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic film. Set to release later this month, Spielberg’s West Side Story stars Rachel Zegler as Maria, Ansel Elgort as Tony, and Ariana DeBose as Anita.

Of course, Moreno’s cameo was to be expected. What is less expected is that her role is a new twist on a character from the original musical. While Tony was mentored by the shopkeeper, Doc, in both the stage version and in the previous film, the 2021 film will see him instead mentored by Valentina, Doc’s widow. The role was created specifically for Moreno.

Additionally, Spielberg stated that he wanted to create an authentic portrayal of Puerto Rican life in New York. As such, the director “urged [Moreno] to share her perspective” with the new cast members. He did the in an effort to right some of the wrongs of the original film, which featured significant whitewashing.

Unsurprisingly, this lead to Moreno actively stepping in to help direct the younger actors on set. She reportedly felt that the actors playing the Sharks did not understand the danger their characters were in. Being familiar with the era the film is set in, Moreno had insight they did not.

Her advice? “Scare each other.”

A Twilight Zone Moment

The most surreal experience on the set of the new West Side Story for Moreno was filming a scene alongside DeBose’s Anita.

“It was so eerie,” Moreno explained. “I could just not get into the scene, because I would see her, and I’d say, ‘But no, no, I’m Anita.’ It was very hard to do. Wasn’t easy for her, but it was near impossible for me. It was spooky to be looking at another Anita.”

“The beauty is, she’s another Anita, but you’re the Anita,” The View host Whoopi Goldberg said in response.

Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story hits theaters on Dec. 10.