During the course of my career, I have my met my share of celebrities, including a few presidents and Hollywood and Broadway starts galore. Being human, I admit, some have left me starstruck. One such luminary is Rita Moreno, winner of all four prestigious awards in show business. Her extensive credits span more than six decades, beginning with her Broadway debut at age 13. Moreno has starred on Broadway and London’s West End, appeared in more than 40 feature films and countless television shows, and has performed in numerous regional theatres, including her one-woman show, “Life Without Makeup.”
Currently, Moreno stars in the groundbreaking Latino remake of Norman Lear’s classic sitcom, “One Day at a Time” on Pop TV. Just recently, she signed on as an executive producer. She also co-stars in the widely anticipated Steven Spielberg remake of “West Side Story,” scheduled for a December 2020 release. When not shooting a TV show or film, she performs as a guest artist with symphony orchestras, in addition to speaking engagements around the country.
I met Moreno years ago, backstage, after she performed at Clowes Memorial Hall. Then in 2015, I became reacquainted with her after she was inducted into The Great American Songbook Foundation Hall of Fame at The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Both times, I was so in awe of her, I quaked in my boots like the quintessential fanboy.
When it was announced she was to perform at The Palladium this past December 6, I reached out to the venue’s communicatons director to request a phone interview, which took place on Nov. 26. Regrettably, just days before the concert, Moreno had to cancel due to illness. There is hope the concert can be rescheduled, but at this point, there is no indication as to when it will take place.
In the meantime, I sat on the interview because it was no longer newsworthy, but then decided it was too much fun not to share, especially with her die-hard fans like me, who will recognize her direct, outspoken, feisty personality and sharp sense of humor. She is one of those people who can see right through any BS. Was I nervous while talking to her this time? At first, I was a bit intimidated, but by the end of our chat, due to her warmth, I felt very much at ease.
Herein is an edited transcript of our conversation when I spoke with her by phone from her California home late last year.
May I call you Rita?
Rita. Definitely, Rita. You are going to hear a strange-sounding woman who has a very bad cold. I am so riddled with gunk on my chords.
Hopefully it will be cleared up before your show here.
I remember meeting you years ago when you did your show at Clowes Hall and you did your mother’s accent. It reminded me of my own mother’s.
Her accent is the one I used on my “One Day at a Time” series. Do you watch it?
Oh, yes. Do you still have your mom?
No, unfortunately not. I miss her terribly. The older I get, the more I miss her. It’s been years now. The thing is I have so many successes in my older years, I wish she could have seen. It is not wise to give up ever.
She did experience a lot of your career success though, right?
Oh, yes. In fact, if you watch me on YouTube getting my Oscar, she is the lady behind me as I am shown getting my name called. That’s my mommy.
What’s it like seeing yourself all over the Internet?
I don’t look at the Internet.
Tell me about your show?
It’s going to be a marvelous show. Are you going to see it?
Yes, wouldn’t miss it. I am a reviewer, so I will definitely see it.
That’s fabulous. You will have to come back and say hello. You have an invitation from me.
I last spoke with you after you were inducted into The Songbook Foundation Great American Songbook Hall of Fame here in 2015. What did that honor mean to you?
To win it from Michael (Feinstein) is what made it special. It’s not so much the award, as who it comes from. I felt very thrilled and very honored.
I know you have always included songs from the American Songbook in your act. Do you still?
I do two pieces from “Sunset Boulevard” because I played Norma in London and it is wonderfully dramatized because the song is one most people don’t know because you have to have seen the show. It’s “New Ways to Dream,” the song she sings when she is trying to win her lover back and trying to impress him with the movies she’s made. She takes him into her screening room and sings this incredible song about what it was like then. And it goes like this: (she sings) “This was dawn/There were no rules/We were so young/Movies were born/So many songs/Yet to be sung.” It’s a great song and it tells the audience what she is trying to hold onto emotionally. And then I do “With One Look,” which is just beautiful.
I can’t imagine what it was like playing the role of Norma, considering your own storied film career.
It was incredible. It was a wonderful experience. But that is what I do with all of my songs. I do stories. I make up stories or use real stories. Mostly, I use real stories to set up the songs. Of course, I do the songbook and then there is a marvelous number by David Frishberg. He does those great, unusual jazz tunes. I do the one called “Blizzard of Lies,” which is absolutely hilarious and, my God, so timely now.
How about songs from “West Side Story?”
No. Hell no. Nope. I don’t mind being asked about it, but I tell people that is not what I do anymore.
But aren’t you asked about “West Side Story” a lot, especially now since you are in Spielberg’s version? Tell me about your role in the new West Side Story.
It is not a cameo. It is a real part. Tony Kushner wrote it just for me. Between Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, there is a lot to admire.
Of course I saw Kushner’s two-part “Angels in America.” It was remarkable.
Did you see the one on television also with Meryl Streep in it?
Yes, I did.
Wasn’t she astonishing? You know for the longest time I did not realize she was that rabbi. Tony told me that people on set were talking to her like she was a rabbi. They didn’t know she was Meryl Streep (Laughs). Isn’t that a great story? She’s great. I love her.
Tell me more about your Palladium concert.
I am also singing some songs in Spanish. I always do. Oh, yes.
When I was a young theatre student, we had very few Latino role models, besides you and Chita Rivera and just a handful of others.
When I came to this country, there was nobody. Did you read my book, by any chance?
No, I haven’t.
You haven’t read it. And you are interviewing me?
I will now.
If you are really interested, get the audio of my book. It’s extremely funny and extremely sad. It is very personal.
So you tell a lot of personal stories?
I talk about Marlon (Brando), which is wonderful. I talk about Elvis. I talk about the Hollywood days. There is just great, great material in it. Nothing is made up. I don’t make up stories. I find something from my life that introduces the songs.
Will you be accompanied by a band in your concert?
My trio. They are marvelous. In fact, Russell Kassoff, my pianist, plays with Liza. He’s also been working with Michael (Feinstein) quite a bit lately.
Do you play clubs or do cabaret?
Once in a while I do. I can never tell when I will be interested in a project (Laughs).
What are your criteria for taking on projects?
No criteria. I just think, “Oh, you know what? I haven’t had fun in a while. Let’s go do that.” I am about to be 87 on December 11 and still actually have a voice.
What is your attitude toward aging?
Attitude? I don’t have one.
Do you feel age is just a number?
That’s too easy an answer. You do age. My knees are definitely 87.
You don’t find that amusing?
I can relate. I turn 72 soon. Your energy level seems to be very high, however.
It’s always been that way. Everyone talks about that and I am very energetic in my show and I am funny and that is great.
When I first saw you live all those years ago, I thought you were hilarious.
I am thrilled for you that “One Day at a Time” has been picked up by Pop TV.
Isn’t that wonderful?
That doesn’t happen very often that a show gets canceled and then picked up by another network.
No, it doesn’t, but Sony was working very hard and they are the ones who are responsible. They really love the show. It also helped that both the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities really loved the show.
I am really impressed how the writers are able to combine all the issues the show covers and weave them into entertaining story lines.
I agree with you. It takes a real skill to write a situation comedy that is very funny and suddenly grabs you by the heart and wring it. That takes writing skill.
It is refreshing to see such a positive portrayal of a Latino family.
You know, so many non-Latino families could relate to it as well. That was Norman’s (Lear) thrust. He wanted to show America that all families have joys and sorrows. Some are similar. Some are not. How do you get enough money to feed your family? How do you get respect from people, which is just not about being Latino, and he really nails it. That is why he found the best writers there are for this particular show.
And what are the backgrounds of the writers?
Gloria Calderón, the show’s executive producer, is Cuban and is the head writer, and Mike Royce, another executive producer, was one of the writers on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” so he is especially talented in doing family writing. The story in the show about my granddaughter coming out as lesbian is from his own life.
It’s authentic, that’s for sure.
Very. Very. That incredible episode Gloria wrote about leaving Cuba with one tiny, little suitcase is so moving. In fact, I kept crying during the scene. And Gloria kept saying, “It’s not time to cry yet,” and I said, “I know, but I can’t help it, but it is Rita who is reacting to Lydia’s plight.”
Did you receive complaints from those who thought a Cuban should be playing your role, since you are Puerto Rican?
I heard there were some complaints, which shocked the hell out of me. We as Latinos have so little work, as it is, as representatives, so I was absolutely shocked and hurt by that kind of attitude. Happily, there weren’t a lot of those complaints, but there were some. I can’t believe it.
Jennifer Lopez (who is Puerto Rican) was criticized for playing Selena, who was a Mexican American.
That should have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s talent. Let me put it this way. If you were playing a woman, who is a Jew in a film, are we really going to say, “Oh, but she is not a Polish Jew or a Russian Jew?” My response is “Really?”
Have you started filming the new season?
We start in January. We are thrilled to pieces.
Where do you shoot?
In Los Angeles.
Do you live in L.A.?
No, I live in Berkeley.
What is the weather like right now?
It’s going to rain and I’m thrilled. We desperately need it here.
What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
I am going to the home of a dear friend.
What do you have to thankful for this year?
Just being here (Laughs).
How do you feel about still being relevant? Do you think you are?
Well, I suppose if I wasn’t, I have certainly become relevant with a vengeance.
Young people make me aware of my relevance or lack thereof.
Don’t blame it on young people. What are you doing to stay relevant? What is it you want to do? Make a plan. Write it down and go about achieving it.
It’s hard enough staying relevant when you are a regular Joe, much less when you are in show business, right?
You are absolutely right, but you can’t allow yourself to be taken into it.
What has been the reason for your success at staying in the public eye?
I think I have a real gift for appreciating the moment. Smelling the coffee, as they say.
Well, I find it interesting you don’t live in the past that much, as evidenced by your dislike for talking about the original “West Side Story.”
I don’t mind talking about it, but that is no longer my life. That was a part of my life. There will be a lot more about it, however, as the film premiere of the remake approaches because it is very special and the experience of suddenly being directed by Steven Spielberg, who happens to be one of my favorite directors ever, having originally had nothing to do with “West Side Story.” How can you not be enthused? I haven’t been asked not to talk about it, but I have been asked to please, please don’t give anything away about it. And I am not going to do that because I don’t want to spoil it. I can only tell you it is pretty fabulous. He is a hell of a cinematic movie maker.
How much time did you spend filming your part?
I was on a plane constantly. They had a lot of problems with weather in New York. They had to do a lot of dance numbers outside and with the horrible rain all summer in New York, every time it rained, they had to change the schedule, so I was literally in and out in for about three months.
I can’t imagine the logistics of that project.
I can’t imagine how anybody stayed sane. During one of the big dance numbers, I think the temperature was like 98. But you know, only young people can do that and live to tell the story (Laughs).
Well, it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you.
Of course. Hope your cold gets better. Eat some chicken soup. That always helps me.
I am doing everything I can because I have a show to do next week.
Take care. I look forward to seeing you. Bye.