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Steven Spielberg is directing a new movie adaptation of West Side Story. The musical is a Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden love between a Caucasian boy Tony and Puerto Rican girl Maria. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, it’s the Sharks and the Jets gangs. Rita Moreno was in the 1961 movie of West Side Story, and Spielberg cast her in his film.

Rita Moreno in West Side Story
Rita Moreno | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Moreno was on a Television Critics Association panel for One Day at a Time as it returns to television on Pop. After the panel she spoke with reporters about working on Spielberg’s film and the greatest gift he gave her. West Side Story is in theaters December 18, 2020.

Rita Moreno was just as skeptical about Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ as anyone

When there’s a classic movie of a classic musical, many people think you should leave that alone, let alone the people who starred in it. 

“I know there’s some people who love the original movie and there are some people going, ‘Oh God,’” Moreno said. “You’re in for some amazing surprises. He’s just a great filmmaker. What can I say? He’s a very, very cinematic man.”

Even though it’s a remake of a familiar story, Moreno had to keep quiet about any changes Spielberg is making.

Steven Spielberg's West Side Story
Left to Right: Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria’s brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú) | Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Ramona Rosales.

“I have been begged not to reveal anything about the film itself,” Moreno said. “I can understand that but I can tell you you’re in for some very happy surprises. Same music, different choreography, [choreographer] Justin Peck who is spectacular.”

The new role wasn’t the gift

Screenwriter Tony Kushner created a new role of Valentina for Moreno to play in West Side Story. That’s a rare opportunity but even that’s not the gift she’s talking about.

“I mean, who has that experience?” Moreno said. “And I won an Oscar for that and I won a Golden Globe for that. This is major. This movie is coming out December 18 on Steven’s birthday and I’ll be 89. Is that crazy? 89.”

29-year-old Rita Moreno couldn’t have imagined doing ‘West Side Story’ again

Rita Moreno was 29 when she made West Side Story the first time. With her whole career ahead of her, she never would have imagined doing the movie again with Steven Spielberg.

“She wouldn’t believe it,” Moreno said of her younger self. “I cannot tell you how thrilled I am, how astonished I am, how privileged I feel. This is amazing. I was 88 just a few weeks ago, December. They’re very, very different because when we did the original film, I was working with two directors, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.”

Steven Spielberg fixed this problem with ‘West Side Story’

West Side Story is a classic but it’s also a product of 1961. Steven Spielberg updated it with modern sensibilities. For example, he cast Latinx actors as the Puerto Rican characters. In the 1961 film, Caucasian actors wore dark makeup. Even Moreno had to wear darker makeup than her natural skin tone.

Rita Moreno and George Chakiris
Rita Moreno and George Chakiris | Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images

“The Sharks are hispanic for real, for real, for real,” Moreno said. “Steven and Tony killed themselves to try to make right some of the things that weren’t thought about. I’ll try to be as kind as I can. The makeup they used was the color they are. When we did West Side Story, George [Chakrisi] and I had to use a very, very dark makeup.”

But even that isn’t the big gift Steven Spielberg gave Rita Moreno.

Here is the gift Steven Spielberg gave Rita Moreno

Any gift from Steven Spielberg is a keeper, but the one he gave her at the end of filming West Side Story is a touching bookend to her career.

“One of the best gifts I’ve ever received in my life and at my request was the clapboard for the very last take which I clapped,” Moreno said. “Steven gave that to me and wrote on it, ‘For Rita, friend, icon and dreamer.’”