Why Rita Moreno almost quit West Side Story

West Side Story is often considered one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. The iconic film was a massive critical and commercial success when it was released in 1961, becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year and winning ten Academy Awards, including best picture. West Side Story not only gifted the world Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, but it also launched the undeniable star of Rita Moreno to a large audience.

That last part almost didn’t happen, though. Although Moreno is one of only a few people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (an EGOT), it was nearly a different story. Today, as we anxiously await the release of Stephen Speilberg’s remake of West Side Story (Morena is an executive producer on the project), the legendary actress isn’t shy about revealing the negative aspects of her experience making the original. The process was so negative, in fact, that she was ready to quit on more than one occasion.

These are the 'America' lyrics Rita Moreno wouldn't sing

One of West Side Story’s most famous songs is “America.” In the tune, the Puerto Rican “Sharks” debate the merits and failings of the place they now call home. While the gist of the song is the same in both versions, “America” features some of the most notable lyrical changes between the Broadway and film versions of the show. In the original Broadway version, the song is sung by an all-female ensemble, but in the movie, it’s arranged as a big number that pits the men against the women. While this changed prompted plenty of lyrical changes, there was one particular line that Rita Moreno insisted be changed.

The movie features the lyric, “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion/Let it sink back in the ocean,” which Moreno says is a vast improvement over the original lyric: “Puerto Rico, you ugly island/Island of tropic diseases.” Moreno found the latter to be “venal.” She explained her thought process to The Hollywood Reporter in 2019: “I wanted this part so badly, so badly, but… I suddenly remembered that lyric. Nobody knows this but I said ‘Those words won’t come out of my mouth.'” Moreno was ready to walk away from the part: “I couldn’t bear the thought of doing this to my people.” 

Thankfully, Sondheim made the change, though the song remains controversial.

Rita Moreno's resented her dark makeup in West Side Story

Although West Side Story tackled sensitive subject matter with care and empathy, that doesn’t mean every aspect of the final product holds up to modern sensibilities. One of those elements was the film’s decision to have the actors playing Puerto Rican characters wear dark makeup to create a sharper contrast with the white members of the rival gang, the Jets. The process of applying the dark makeup was one that Rita Moreno came to “resent.” 

In a conversation with USA Today, Moreno said, “I remember one time saying to the makeup man ‘I really hate this color because this isn’t the color I am.’ And he actually said to me ‘What, are you racist?’ I was so stunned that I didn’t say anything.” 

Moreno believes this interaction demonstrates how little people knew about Puerto Rico, especially in 1961. “I had to remind [the makeup man]. Puerto Rico was colonized by the French, the Dutch and the Spanish. We have that blood in us. And the people indigenous are Taíno Indian. That’s why there are Puerto Ricans [who] are white as milk and the color of charcoal,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “We are everybody.”

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