Rita Moreno's Got Life
The multi-award-winning star discusses her new solo show, Life Without Makeup, and her new TV series, Happily Divorced.
THEATERMANIA: Rita, we talked about this show five years. Are you glad it's finally happened?
RITA MORENO: Part of me really didn't want to do it, since there's no one but me on stage. But Tony Taccone, who is the artistic director of Berkeley Rep, really talked me into it. About two years ago, he said to me, "Rita, you're 77, you better do it soon." I think of the reasons Tony wanted to me do this show, as he told me, is that I am one of the very few people left from the old Hollywood days, who does all of it. I can sing, dance, do comedy, and tell fascinating stories. And that argument won me over. And I think it's really good. I'm very pleased with it.
TM: What is the structure of the show?
RM: We start from the day that I arrived in New York City on a boat with my family from Puerto Rico and go on to the present. It was with enormously difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. I have lived a lot of life - so the first few drafts Tony and I did were really long. And it was heartbreaking taking out some of these stories. I hope it doesn't fell too truncated. But people do have to pee. Fortunately, I'm working on a memoir, and I can include some of those stories I left out.
TM: Is the show just you talking?
RM: No, I'm singing some songs, and what's kind of wonderful is how Tony has incorporated them in the story. It's not just, oh, here's a number from West Side Story. And I am, what I call, SKD -- sorta kinda dancing. I have a new knee that hasn't quite healed, so I can't do everything I want, but I am doing a surprising amount of dancing.
TM: How were you able to remember everything that's happened in your life?
RM: My mother kept everything. From the time I started out, she made me scrapbooks, and then I had other people do that for me. I'll be showing old photos and things and I think that will be very much appreciated by the audience. There are some fabulous treasures of photos of me during the early day of my career, There are these pin-up photos that make me laugh; I look like the poor man's Maria Montez. But there are some I look at, and I didn't realize how sexy I looked back then.
TM: Did you watch other people solo shows for inspiration?
RM: I saw one of Anna Deavere Smith's shows when she was here, and I was just overwhelmed that anyone could stay on stage and do so many characters. I saw Elaine Stritch's show, both live and on video, and I learned a lot from that. What she really taught me is that you don't need a big complicated set. We have a special one from Anna Louizos, who designed In the Heights, and I am so thrilled to work with her.
TM: Is there a message to the show?
The thrust of what I want people go away with is that my story is the story of a child from another country who doesn't speak language and then spends too long trying to being white. That kind of self-denigration takes its toll; you really begin to believe you don't have worth. I would've called the show American Me, because my story is an American story.
TM: So, you're starring as Fran Drescher's mother on her new TV series, Happily Divorced. How did that come about?
RM: I haven't been offered much TV work in the last eight years. I think I did three auditions. But I had done an episode of The Nanny with Fran when I played her mean gym teacher. So I went to this audition to play her mother, and there were a lot of great actresses up for the role. Fran was there and read with all of us, and as soon as I started reading, I was talking like Fran and everyone in the room was laughing. I came away thinking they were just being extra-polite - which happens a lot when you're a celebrity - or they were either sincere, in which case I might really get this part. Two hours later, I got a call from my agent they wanted me .
TM: Are you glad you took the job?
RM: Yes, we spend all our time laughing on the set. We have such a wonderful cast. I love John Michael Higgins, he plays the part of Fran's ex-husband so well, Tichina Arnold is so funny, and I love having Robert Walden as my husband, since he's also from the theater world. We're a very compatible team. And I believe that a happy set comes from the top, and no one is more wonderful than Fran.
RM: That's one of my objectives - after I wrap the new season of the TV series, we plan go to Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and maybe New York. I am so glad I have two month in my house theater, as I call it, to do refinements. Frankly, the opening night Is going to be beginning of real rehearsals.