Rita Moreno Changes Tune on Returning to ‘West Side Story’ (Exclusive)

Rita Moreno Attends Outfest (Credit: Matthew Carey)

Months after expressing deep reservations about Steven Spielberg’s planned remake of West Side Story, Rita Moreno has had a change of heart.

The 86-year-old actress, who won an Academy Award for her role as Anita in the 1961 original film, has agreed to play Valentina in Spielberg’s update, a re-imagined and expanded version of the character, who owns the store where Tony works.

She will also serve as an executive producer on the film, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.

“I am tingling!” Moreno said in a statement. “Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself revisiting this seminal work. And to be asked by Steven Spielberg to participate is simply thrilling! Then to work together with the brilliant playwright, Tony Kushner – what a glorious stew!”

Moreno’s Concerns

This past summer, Moreno was singing a somewhat different tune. In an exclusive interview at the Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, she expressed doubts regarding the remake.

“I’m nervous, because I don’t want it to spoil what we had,” she told me candidly on the red carpet for the premiere of a documentary about her friend, the playwright Terrence McNally. “I can’t imagine what they’re going to do with it because if you make it ‘very now’ does that mean rap? Does that mean different dance steps? What does it mean? What does [Spielberg] have in mind?”

But she added of the filmmaker, “He happens to be one of my favorite directors, so I’m thinking if anybody had to do this, it should be him. He obviously loves the property, but I’m nervous about it. I would hate to be disappointed.”

Related StoryMathew Knowles Plans Musical on Destiny’s Child ‘Victories and Failures’

Rita Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film "West Side Story"
Rita Moreno played Anita in the 1961 film “West Side Story” (Credit: United Artists)

In a statement on Tuesday, Spielberg voiced admiration for Moreno, winner of the EGOT— Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — entertainment’s most elusive achievement (only 15 people have won all four awards to date).

“From our earliest discussions, we wanted to include Rita Moreno in our production,” Spielberg said.

“Her Anita is one of the greatest musical performances ever filmed, and a personal favorite of mine,” he added. “We created an original role for her, and we feel beyond fortunate that Rita will bring her extraordinary gifts as an actress, as well as her deep understanding of ‘West Side Story’ to this production as an executive producer.”

Production Details

Twentieth Century Fox will release the Spielberg remake, with filming expected to begin in the summer of 2019, by which time Moreno will have turned 87. She will star alongside Ansel Elgort, who will play Tony. Additional casting decisions have yet to be revealed.

The original film was directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, with choreography by Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for George Chakiris (as Anita’s boyfriend and Sharks gang leader Bernardo) and Supporting Actress for Moreno.

Despite the classic status of the original movie musical, Moreno believes there is a possibility for improvement.

“It doesn’t mean that what we had was perfection,” she said. “On the contrary. There was a lot of dialogue that was dated even then, like ‘I’m hip.’ And I remember we’d say, ‘Oh God, can’t they change that?’ But it’s an extraordinary movie nevertheless.”