Rita Moreno: West Side Story mustn’t be forgotten, 50 years on

In September 1961, when “West Side Story” opened in New York, it was the breakout hit of the season. But even before Oscar-winning actress Rita Moreno’s addition to the cast came into focus, there was no denying its power. The show, set in New York City’s tony Upper West Side, featured a cast of young American and Puerto Rican actors, including Richard Beymer as “Tony” and “Maria”, (Perry Beatty was recently cast in that role), as well as friends Moreno had met during appearances at the Plaza hotel, where she and a few others from the original cast would attend their own shows.

Rita Moreno as Anita in the original Broadway production of West Side Story. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

There were huge night time crowds in the “culture wars” of 1961, which were quite distinct from today’s.

Some songs were the first hits of their creators, hence the “groupie mobs” who went crazy over them when their songs popped up in movies, TV shows and video games. And there were stars or former stars everywhere you looked: they’d given concerts and helped fund them; singers who’d front other bands had songs and albums to speak to anyone who ever listened to 1960s pop.

The West Side Story disco scene is different from today’s

But the public, who’d grown up hearing Frank Sinatra on the radio, would have never appreciated so much hip-hop in a 1960s show without Elton John’s “Stars Tonight”, Diana Ross’s “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Help from My Friends”.

Then there were the artists who caught on in New York so swiftly that in the 1960s, their music was one of the things that built New York’s up-and-coming small market. “Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, John Sebastian and that kind of thing,” Moreno told me, “there wasn’t anybody like that.” I had also interviewed those four back in the 1950s. It’s only by chance I got to know them all this last month while researching my article, which was published today.

And there were the cameras and cameras everywhere: TV crews, newspapers, film crews, magazine photographers, socialites in the West Village, all looking for the next Kanye or Luciana Gimenez.

I would also ask Moreno to repeat lyrics when she did her own spoken-word interpretations of her songs at benefit concerts for students in New York.

Again and again and again, she had no hesitation, remembering with great relish the scene in the auditorium where her parents sat, and singing over and over again the opening lyric to “Somewhere”: “Yes I could, could you hear me?”

The lyrics are etched on Moreno’s left hand, the hand she describes in the Vanity Fair profile as “funny” – a birthmark that was responsible for her famously large fingers (and right hand as well). Her story – growing up a poor Puerto Rican working-class girl who became one of the biggest stars of all time – is beautifully told in the end pages of the profile.

All that stands out to me is the way her idea of theater was so different from ours, from the kind of musical she went to see there to the way we go to see our own shows. In her mind, there were no limits: it was okay to talk. There were no strict performance guidelines for big Broadway musicals, which were always shaped by the egos of the stars themselves, whose tastes would also dictate how the story, songs and production would be done. That realism would also feel so alien in the disco scene of the 1980s.

In the end, we think of Moreno as the prim, proper actress who seems to exist in a different time, the playwrights she worked with such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. But a friend said recently that Moreno still feels so connected to that time: “What she said was, ‘I’m in a West Side Story with Tony and Maria. I’m clearly singing ‘America.

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