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Arts & Life

At 84, Award-Winning Actress Rita Moreno Tries New Projects


The actress, singer, dancer Rita Moreno became a household name after her Oscar-winning turn as Anita in the 1961 movie "West Side Story." Five decades later, she is as busy as ever. She's a voice in a new animated TV series. Her new album is out. It's called "Una Vez Mas." And she's being honored by The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for her life in show business. NPR's Felix Contreras spoke with Rita Moreno.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: When Rita Moreno received another lifetime achievement award last year from the Screen Actors Guild, she finished her acceptance speech with an a cappella version of "This Is All I Ask."


RITA MORENO: (Singing) As I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life.

CONTRERAS: That impromptu performance led to her first ever album in Spanish. Multiplatinum record producer Emilio Estefan was watching the ceremony, and not long after, he spoke to Moreno and said...

MORENO: You sang a cappella. You sang without an orchestra, and you have a wonderful voice. You do want to do it, don't you? And I said, oh, yeah.

CONTRERAS: Estefan selected 11 songs for Moreno that covered just about the entire range of Latin music, from Caribbean salsa...


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: ...To Brazilian samba...


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: ...To a bachata from the Dominican Republic.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: Rosita Dolores Alverio grew up speaking Spanish in a small town in Puerto Rico, so why didn't Rita Moreno ever record an album in a Spanish?

MORENO: Nobody asked me. Nobody asked me. If people had said, well, why don't you do Spanish films? Nobody has asked me.

CONTRERAS: She says that kind of industry slight has been part of her career, along with the accolades. Winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her role in "West Side Story" in 1962 should have led to all kinds of offers. But she says it turned out to be a painful double-edged sword. She didn't work for seven years after that.

MORENO: I was only offered a few very small gangland-type movies. That's it. And I tucked my Oscar and my Golden Globe under each arm and I said, I'm not doing that stuff anymore. I want to stop speaking with an accent.

CONTRERAS: She says she turned to the stage and television to keep working, refusing roles that typecast her. She won Emmys for her performances on "The Rockford Files" and "The Muppets." She also won a Grammy for her singing on the television show "The Electric Company" and a Tony for her role as Googie Gomez in the play "The Ritz," which she did with an exaggerated Puerto Rican accent that she says was an amalgamation of voices she heard as a child and was meant to celebrate not ridicule. She re-created Googie in the film a year later.


MORENO: (As Googie Gomez, singing) I had a dream, a dream about you, baby. It's going to come true, baby. They think that we're through, but...

CONTRERAS: As she approaches her 84th birthday, Rita Moreno says she looks back on a lifetime in show business with a reflective wisdom found in the lyrics she sang at that award show.

MORENO: It's an amazing song because it exactly describes where I am right now.

CONTRERAS: Taking stock on a lifetime of self-respect and treasured memories.


MORENO: (Singing) This is all I ask. This is all I need.


CONTRERAS: Felix Contreras, NPR News.

GREENE: What a voice. I love it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.