What does Rita Moreno think of the new Anita in ‘West Side Story’?

During rehearsals for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, it became evident how much Rita Moreno misses playing Anita, the groundbreaking role she played in the 1961 movie version of the famous Broadway musical. .

Ariana DeBose, who brings the role back to life in Spielberg’s version, said she recalled watching Moreno out of the corner of her eye and seeing her dance to some of the tunes from the show while the actors practiced their choreography.

Moreno agreed, saying that whenever DeBose did something spirited, she would try to do it. “I couldn’t help myself,” she said.

In a joint interview with NBC News, Moreno and DeBose both acknowledged how Anita has become an even more relevant Latina character six decades after “West Side Story” premiered on Broadway.

The story of the original 1957 Broadway musical was created as a modern take on William Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet”. Set in the 1950s, “West Side Story” focuses on the rivalry between two teenage street gangs – the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang – as their communities faced displacement during the period of urban renewal in New York. Their rivalry escalates when Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of Sharks frontman Bernardo.

Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s friend Anita is Puerto Rican like the rest of the Sharks. She stands out with her assertiveness and captivating dancing skills.

“Anita is inherently a woman who knows her own mind. She is a woman ahead of her time. She’s got agency and she speaks out, ”DeBose said. “In 1957 or 1961, it was an anomaly.

Today, “West Side Story” is an iconic period piece that has been performed countless times on stages around the world. In every iteration, including the remake of Spielberg’s film, Anita’s role continues, standing the test of time.

An Anita for a new generation

In the remake, Anita isn’t shy about raising issues of colorism and racism within her own Latino community – and how that affects her perception of the world. In one scene, Bernardo suggests that Anita isn’t really her family, even though they all live under the same roof and she pays rent. Anita calls him in Spanish, asking him if he said that because she is “prieta”, Puerto Rican slang for dark or black skin.

“I was very adamant that whatever interpretation I gave for this performance, it would be very different,” said DeBose, who is Afro Latina. “As a black woman, that makes a different portrayal of her, as my physical manifestation has to inform that particular version. “

The scene contrasts sharply with the fact that Moreno was forced to wear brown makeup to darken her skin in the first film “West Side Story” – even though she was the only Puerto Rican member of the film’s original cast.

The veteran actor recalled a time when she complained about being a brunette face to a makeup artist on the 1961 film set. She said he replied, “What is it? that you are, racist? “

“I couldn’t even think of an answer,” Moreno, 90, said.

That’s part of why Moreno “loved having an Afro Latina play Anita,” she said. “It seemed quite right.”

DeBose, 30, said she draws on both her professional and personal experiences to bring “a new look” to Anita’s character.

The actor, singer and dancer rose to prominence after joining the original cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “Hamilton” and appeared on “Schmigadoon!” Apple TV +. as well as Netflix’s “The Prom”.

DeBose grew up with a white mother and an African-Puerto Rican father in North Carolina, a place where she had no access to her Latin culture, she said.

“It’s not a unique experience. There are a lot of Latinos who don’t feel close to their roots, ”DeBose said. “In our communities we subconsciously invalidate each other’s lived experiences in subtle ways, but ‘West Side Story’ allowed me to be immersed in the lived experience that I always wanted.”

That experience included being constantly exposed to Spanish, meeting other Latino actors, and learning about the history of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York City, DeBose said, adding that she felt most like her. – even on the set because, for her, it validated that “being Latino is not a monolith.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in

“You could be like Rita, you could be like me, you could be born into an environment that allows you to experience music, food, or maybe you weren’t,” he said. she declared. “There are many ways to be Latino in this country – as a mixed race Afro Latina, I have a very mixed identity. I also identify as queer.

“As an actor, your lived experiences can and should inform a performance,” added DeBose.

Moreno praised DeBose’s performance in the Spielberg remake. “She’s a beautiful Anita in the movie,” Moreno said.

DeBose said the remarks had special significance, given that “there’s no way in the world that a woman taking on this particular endeavor wouldn’t feel tremendous pressure.” Moreno’s portrayal of Anita in the original film won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar, making history the first Latina to earn that honor.

“She means a lot to me,” DeBose said of Moreno. “She means a lot to the Puerto Rican community. She means a lot to the Latino community and to the entertainment industry in general.”

“How far have we really come? “

Moreno is back on the Spielberg remake as executive producer and as Valentina, a new role created specifically for the film. Valentina is based on Doc, the character who owned the store where the Jets hung out in the original film.

“She’s so far away from Anita, who’s volatile and has an opinion and stuff.” She too, Valentina, but her opinions are expressed in a more subtle way, ”said Moreno. Valentina is also Tony’s voice of reason.

DeBose and Moreno share one of the most intense scenes in the Spielberg remake: when Valentina catches the Jets attacking Anita in her store.

Rita Moreno as Valentina

Rita Moreno as Valentina

Moreno said the scene “really hit home” for her as this scene was one of the most difficult to film when playing Anita. “It was so weird, because all of a sudden I was playing a different role,” she said. In the new version, Valentina defends Anita and blames the Jets for having seen them “become rapists”.

Reimagining the role of Anita for Spielberg’s film, DeBose said she often found herself in a relationship with the character in a way that made her wonder if American society had really progressed enough since the 1960s. .

“The characters can both be a part of you and be separate from you,” she said. “I’m still going through a lot of the things that you see Anita going through in this movie. So the question is, how far have we really come?

“I now have the advantage of being a modern day Anita, and saying what I think comes very naturally,” DeBose said, while being “able to use my lived experience to validate Anita, though we are women from two different periods.

“You could say that I take advantage of characters like Anita,” she said.

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