By BERNICE FOX
Special to Circling the News
Steven Spielberg is thankful Rita Moreno was on the set and in the cast of his new “West Side Story.”
“She danced with the Sharks and the Jets in rehearsal,” Spielberg said. “She came in every week and talked with us about what it was like growing up as a Puerto Rican in America.”
And so much more.
But it took some time to get to that point.
Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role in the 1961 version of “West Side Story,” was concerned when she heard the movie was going to be remade.
“I was worried for the same reason some people are still worried: ‘you’re going to take a good thing and mess with it?’” Moreno said. “It took a while for me to be convinced.”
No worries now. The new “West Side Story” is getting rave reviews, including a near-perfect 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Moreno, who’s a former Pacific Palisades honorary mayor, has two roles in the new film: one in front of the camera and one behind.
In the 1961 movie she sang, danced and acted the role of Anita, the girlfriend of Sharks gang leader, Bernardo.
In the 2021 version she’s a newly-created character, Valentina, widow of Doc from the earlier film. Doc owned the neighborhood store where the Jets gang would hang around. That’s where we find Valentina now.
And Moreno is executive producer on the new “West Side Story.”
She told reporters, including Circling the News, that Spielberg “was enthralled that he had the source, the horse’s mouth. He loved it. I asked, ‘what do you think I bring to this as a producer?’ He said ‘you bring you. You bring your experience.’”
Spielberg, a longtime Palisadian, was not giving Moreno some vanity producer title. It was for real.
“She brought so many interesting stories and she so motivated the cast. And I thought she really needed to be the executive producer,” Spielberg said. “She really did serve more of a managerial role, not to just come in as an actor, but to really help us frame the messages that ‘West Side Story’ needs to extend. She’s been very causal in all of that.”
A change from the original film is that instead of the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, singing one of the film’s memorable songs, it’s Moreno as Valentina.
Spielberg explains, “We gave her the song ‘Somewhere’ and she does it wonderfully. And she did it with a cold. But it was so authentic that I didn’t want her to come into a recording studio and change it.”
Moreno says Spielberg has been a favorite director of hers for years. But this is the first time they’d worked together, and it was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.
“Gosh, Steven prances around the set like a kid,” Moreno said. “He is so happy to be there. I mean that’s not the kind of thing you really feel on a set. They’re doing their job. They may love it. But you don’t see a kid [Spielberg] with a cigar that he doesn’t ever smoke. And he’ll say to you ‘look at this shot. What do you think?’ It’s extraordinary.”
Moreno, who turns 90 on Saturday, can’t believe how her connection to both “West Side Story” movies has played out.
“I cannot tell you how thrilled I am, how astonished I am, how privileged I feel,” she said.
The new “West Side Story” officially opens in theaters tomorrow, though some theaters will begin showing it tonight.