Transcript:

Speaker Jerome Robbins came into my life the day that I was cast as Tuptim in in the King and I and it was. A seminal day in my life, really, because I'd never met anyone quite like him, I had been in a lot of Hollywood B movies. I'd done a couple of musicals. But he was really, to me, exotic and very frightening.

Speaker He.

Speaker Was the kind of choreographer that I had never worked with in the sense that I'd never seen, even seen, let alone experienced that kind of dancing before that kind of choreography. It was totally foreign to me. People assume that I've been that kind of dancer all my life and I wasn't I was a Spanish dancer, period. I didn't know that it was even called jazz, that other kind. I knew ballet, I knew acrobatics, I knew flamenco. But that kind of dancing, I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't seen it. I was really very, very unsophisticated in that sense. So it happened with the King and I.

Speaker And.

Speaker I kept away from him as much as I could because I saw him being unspeakably cruel to people on the set during rehearsals. He was very, very, very, very hard on people unnecessarily. So that was my first impression of Jerry also. I was filled with it all, I just thought he was just this creature from another planet and my and my perception because I'd never seen anyone like that. He also has had a very noble kind of face. He looked like a Roman coin. He just and he wore sneakers. And I'd never seen dancers wearing sneakers before. That's a very New York thing. And people are so casual about it now. You always wear sneakers when you're rehearsing and doing that sort of thing, but. He was just completely exotic to me, and I studied him from corners of the room and I was always on him, I was fascinated by him and as I said, I was very scared of him. The top team was wrong, but he must have worked on how you moved Tuptim was not a dancing role, but there were ways of moving that he wanted. He wanted everyone to move in certain ways and even even with the arms and the hands and that kind of thing, you know, where we did this kind of stuff. And he was delighted that my hand had this kind of occur, because that was called for in the in the choreography. And it was a very different way ahead. I think he almost taught me how to walk like a geisha where you more or less drag your feet in a very dainty and extremely feminine way. And even the my carriage on the way I stood, the way I sat was really all influenced by him.

Speaker Did he stage these with.

Speaker We get a shot of Jerry Robbins, staged everything in the movie, he did the music, all the musical numbers, every single musical number, getting to know you, which was really essentially not a dance number. But there were moves where Debra had to move around and the children did certain things. Everything was staged by him, which was just one of the happiest things that could ever happen to a movie. I think he was a genius. And in that particular moment, which one we kiss in the shadows is an interesting memory for me because because the young man who played LeWinter, my lover Carlos, he was a darling, very handsome young man, was a true monotone. He he really couldn't sing. It was just gorgeous. And he was lovely and and he looked marvelous. But they found a voice for him, which was really had nothing to do with his speaking voice. He found a tenor and Carlos really had a rather deep voice. And what I recall the most of that number was that that his monotone really bothered me. It was just difficult to look him in the face and not. Well, to smile and I asked the playback person who played, you know, you were really lip synching to a playback, I said, would you play the playback very loud, please, so that I don't hear Carlos in that kind of monotone. I hope this doesn't seem cruel because it's really a very sweet memory. But that's my my biggest memory of that. And of course, the setting is so gorgeous. They took the back lot of 20th Century Fox, which is now a mall, and and just brought every tropical plant in the world to it, every tropical plant in the world, orchids just trailing all over the place and huge ferns. It was just a magical setting and found it was really gorgeous and there wasn't really a lot to do there. It was you know, I had to look mostly yearning and sad because we couldn't be together. We were separate. And I just remember really the beauty of it was a beautiful looking scene.

Speaker Tell me about this. You told the story.

Speaker So you must have been in those rehearsals during the rehearsals for the rehearsals for the small house of Uncle Thomas were intense. And they went on for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. And, you know, that's when I began to understand why it is that Jerry drove producers crazy because, you know, normally you do your or whatever was four weeks of rehearsal. And that was that. We just went on and on. We aged just rehearsing that thing before we shot it. And of course, shooting it took even longer. He Jerry was very specific and very particular about the way in which he wanted that to work. What was interesting about it in retrospect is that Stanley Donen, the great director whom I had worked with in Singin in the Rain, came in to help him with camera stuff. And, you know, they both had their their viewers. And Stanley was there for a huge part of the rehearsal to suggest and to help Jerry decide on, you know, what would be the best camera angles for that particular section of the number. Because remember that Stanley Donen had done a lot of musicals. He's worked with Gene Kelly forever and ever. And so he really knew his camera and he knew he certainly had a great insight into what was the best way to shoot certain moves. And I remember being very surprised to see Stanley walk in one day with his little finder. And they we worked so hard we had to do it over and over and over. And we had to do that anyway with Jerry. But when Stanley came in, we had to do it over and over even more. We worked our behinds off. Everyone worked terribly, terribly hard.

Speaker But this is interesting what you're telling me, that Jerry wasn't the director king. You know, Walter Lang was. But you were telling me that Jerry was very involved in how he was shot.

Speaker Oh, Jerry, Jerry was absolutely the final arbiter of what shots were going to be used and what shots were going to be or were being sort of he for all intents and purposes, he directed that sequence. Absolutely. And apparently must have gotten the OK from the director because I don't even even remember the director being around. I'm sure he was Walter Lang. But Walter Line was a very mild gentleman and I think he knew when to step back. And I think Jerome let it be known that he was in charge of that. No, but he was in charge of shall we dance? Also in charge of almost everything that was musical. Including the children's entrance, the march of the Children's Siamese children was all Jerry Robbins, absolutely all Jerry Robbins. Walter Lang was always there, the director, but it was Jerry Robbins who called literally called the shots. And I don't doubt that for a minute that Walter Lang would say, well, you know, I would think that this might be better than that angle. And I'm sure that Jerry listened and and accommodated those suggestions. But ultimately, I know that Jerry was the director of the musical numbers.

Speaker Now about the rehearsals for the small house of Thomas who say they were intense and they went on for a long time. Do you remember the kinds of things that interested Jerry in that he was most involved in, insistent on?

Speaker I'm trying to think. Ask me again in another way. Well, what took so long? What took so long was Jerry's insistence that everybody be absolutely perfect. And what he did was, you know, really when you look at the numbers, it's really extraordinary because he employed Japanese Japanese styles for this number, which was ostensibly Thai, you know, Siamese and all that business with the Blackwood's on the people who would come in with the props. That's all absolutely Japanese. It's no theater, A.H., no theater. And I didn't know that at the time. I was just intrigued and I kept thinking, wow, that's so clever. But I mean, you know, it's wonderful what I think is so wonderful about Jerry among many, many, many other things is his. His sweetness, there were things that he his tenderness, that there were things that he was able to inside him, that which he was able to avail himself the sheet that becomes the river, which is this huge piece of silk, white silk, the the the stars that came out or the sun that comes out to heat up the ice to melt the ice, which was done again with with a like like a fishing pole. And it was done the way children might have done it. He was just I'm really amazed when I see that. No, I weep a lot when I see it. I'm so moved by it and the the sensibility that was behind that kind of work, he just knocks me out.

Speaker I love the rain.

Speaker The rain, the snow was there, no, there's rain and then there was there, rain and wind ran through the streamers, the streamers, the streamers.

Speaker Yes, which was the rainstorm. I mean, who else could have come up with anything like that? And that's why I think to that here he studied a lot of Japanese musical theater. I know he did. And for all I know and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that he actually lifted that from something that he saw, that it wasn't just entirely his idea, but how wonderful that he could incorporate it. Brilliant.

Speaker Just his decision to use the doll for the baby.

Speaker Yes. A rag doll. This with it. Just the idea that he would use a rag doll that a very poor child in the south in this country would have as their doll. It was just and the way it gets shaken out after the rainstorm and you hear a little jingle going so very whimsical and adorable and sweet tender touches in that ballet. It's just an extraordinary ballet.

Speaker I'm sorry, we have to cut from. When it comes. I'm particularly fond of the way he brought the children and the March of the Sun children. Could you talk about that? Just a little miracle from.

Speaker It's interesting that when people think about the musical numbers in the King and I, they rarely bring up the march of the same as children, which for all intents and purposes is a musical number and the many, many ways in many entrances he devised for all of these children until finally, Prince Chulalongkorn, the crown prince, comes in and it's done in such a way. I remember the boy who played it, Patrick Ardiente, who's now a dance teacher. But the little babies, the little twins who come in and and the little boy that comes in and bows on the floor with his behind facing the king and the king picks him up and turns them around. That's so pure. Jerry Robbins. It is absolutely brilliant. And every child had a completely different entrance from the other. Amazing.

Speaker Um, before we leave, you and I is.

Speaker There anything else I'd like to tell you, how we shot it, how we pre-recorded, which is fascinating.

Speaker Has anyone told you about it, at least the way in which the small house of Uncle Thomas was pre-recorded was absolutely brilliant and innovative, and it was never done again in any other film production because it's a ballet where the narration and the dance steps literally have to synchronize like this. They were hard put to decide how on earth to prerecord the music. And the narration and of course. The tempo at which I spoke determined the tempo at which the dancers did their steps, how to do this in a pre-record and somebody and I wish I knew, maybe I'll find out someday. Somebody came up with the idea of using television cameras and television monitors to prerecord this, and we did it in this way. The orchestra was in the main recording studio, huge orchestra with all kinds of exotic instruments. The dancers were in another studio with earphones. I was in yet another studio with a monitor looking at the dancers and another monitor, looking at the orchestra and the conductor and earphones. And what happened was that they would say, you know, King and I were a small house and Thomas take one and the music would start and I would say, Your Majesty and honorable guests, I beg to put before you a small house of Uncle Thomas and then the singers.

Speaker Oh, yes.

Speaker Then there's the court, the singers, small house of Uncle Thomas there in yet another part of the studio with earphones. It was just crazy. And they had a monitor in order to see the conductor.

Speaker And we would go through a take like that, we would do an entire do a hunk of take, we wouldn't do the entire no obvious is too difficult. And at some point somebody would say cut, and we'd all come streaming out of our respective studios and run lickety split to the to the main recording studio where the orchestra was. The dancers would get in place. I would get in place and I would start the narration again and the dancers would dance in time to the pre-record to see how it went. And this is how it went for days but days this went on and on. It was a very, very difficult way to do it. But there was no other way to do it. If you had to prerecord what, you couldn't possibly have a 100 piece orchestra on the set.

Speaker Number one, the sound would never be right. Ever, ever, ever. So that's how we did it. And I think it was just absolute genius. I don't know who thought of it, but, you know, since Jerry was such a genius, maybe he thought of it. I don't know. But it was it's the way in which we recorded. It was crazy.

Speaker What was his role during that process, his role during that process was the same as his role during the process of actual filming, he was there, he was everywhere.

Speaker He had earphones on. He was looking at his dancers. He was listening to me on the cans. It was just the most bizarre experiment, but it worked.

Speaker Now, let's talk about West Side. OK, tell me about Wade.

Speaker I think there's one more thing. Let me see how I bring it up. Jerry was involved in every aspect of the pre-record and, of course, the shooting of the small house of Uncle Thomas, and he directed me as a director, not Walter Lang, the director. It was Jerry who would come and say, why don't you try this? Why don't you try that? It was he who directed me.

Speaker So it's no accident, I suppose, that I ended up doing West Side Story also.

Speaker That's interesting. Would you would you say he was a good director of actors?

Speaker I don't know really if Jerry was a good director of actors, but I do know this, that he energized them in a way that nobody could. He absolutely just he was relentless. He absolutely was relentless with someone like George Chakiris, who tended to be kind of George is a very gentle person and another lovely person. And Jerry felt it was his job to goad him until he would smolder because George never smoulder that way again in anything else. Not that he was called upon to do such a thing, but he really he really intensified the atmosphere. And I guess you could call that direction to.

Speaker Did you have to audition for this story?

Speaker I certainly had to audition for West Side Story. I auditioned everything. I auditioned for singing. I did a singing audition. Then I did a a reading, an audition with a scene, which was the scene at the candy store, which is the scene that was being used for Anita. And then after I auditioned in person, then we also did a screen test, not of the singing part, but of the of the acting part. And I can tell you that every dark eyed girl. With dark hair in Hollywood and Pasadena and God knows where else was auditioned and screen tested for this, it was a long haul and my almost bet noir was the dance part because I had never danced that way before, ever. I was a Spanish dancer. That's what I did. I did flamenco and I played castanets very well. But I did I really didn't know from that kind of dancing ever. And after my two auditions, the singing and the acting, they were very happy. When I say they, I mean Jerome Robbins and Robert Weiss, who was co directing at that point, Jerry said. I really like what you're doing. I would like to you to play Anita, but he said you really have to audition for the dance part because if you can't cut that, there's no way that I can use you. And I gulped really hard. It's it's quite an interesting story. I said, how long do I have before the audition? He said, you really have quite a while because he said we've got so much to do because they were also doing film tests of effects, all kinds of stuff in advance of the actual filming. And he said we have lots more people to see. But he said, I really I really I'm favoring you, but you must audition. What I didn't tell you. It's that I hadn't danced since I was 17. I was then, I guess about 25 or something like that, 24, 25. I hadn't danced not one lick since I was 17, which was a film with Mario Lanza called The Toast of New Orleans. And I ran to the local dancing school. It was Eugene Lorang. Eugene Lorang was a choreographer dance school, and I registered for every dance class that I could and I really did. I worked my butt off. I went to ballet. I went to and I was never a ballet dancer. I went to ballet. I went to jazz. I was finally introduced to jazz. I went to every dance class that I could possibly go to, which meant that I was working from 9:00 in the morning, probably till about six or seven in the evening after not having dance forever and ever and ever and never having danced that kind of dance in my life. I worked so hard that one teacher said to me one day after class, it was about 7:00 in the evening. She said, I do not want you to come back to my class again. And I said, Oh, why I was so upset? And she said, Because dare you turn a funny shade of purple, you work so hard, you turn a funny shade of purple and I'm afraid something's going to happen to you. And I don't want it to happen in my class. And it had never occurred to me and it was true. I went to the ladies room that evening. I remember to look at the shade of purple that I was indeed I was a color of an eggplant. I was so overheated. And I remember, too, that I worked so hard that I would raise a fever. And I knew that it was a fever because I was extremely hot and had huge goose bumps at the same time, which is what happens when you have a fever. And I think the only thing that kept me from just dropping dead was just my I'm very strong. I have enormous stamina and my youth, although I was really older than all the other dancers eventually who were in the in the film. Well, that's what I kept doing. I kept doing that for about a month and a half. And I was finally called after a month and a half and said, we're going to do your audition next. I don't know, is like two weeks from then and you're to be at the studio at 2:00 p.m., blah, blah. And Howard Jeffries, Jerome Robbins, his assistant, will audition you. I knew I wasn't ready as hard as it was like asking someone to play sets of tennis a day for a month. You still don't you don't become a tennis player. I called a girlfriend named Debra who had played Anita on the road. And I said, help me. What can you do to help me? I know I'm not really ready. And she very generously said, well, I can teach you a couple of sections from A.S. from America and a section from from the dance at the gym because the mom at the gym, because she said, I'm sure they'll audition you for those both those things. And she said, but I can't guarantee that the section that I teach you is going to be the one that they will be showing you in the audition. And I said, I don't care, just, you know, teach me something. And she did. And I went to the audition with my heart in my throat because who knew? So Howard Jeffries takes me by the hand. He says, OK, Rita, let me teach you a section of America.

Speaker And I said, OK. And he taught me the one that Deborah had taught me. You want to talk about, what is that? Kismet.

Speaker And as most people know, when you do a dance audition, you get taught the dance and then you get taught it very slowly and then you do a little faster, a little faster. And then eventually, within 15 minutes or so, you have to do it back at the choreographer, but with style and at speed. And I got through that and then he said, now let's do the mambo at the gym. I thought, OK.

Speaker And it was the ones that Deborah taught me and I I did it. And then went home and I was just dying because I knew I was far from perfect.

Speaker I found out later, this is the story, I was told that Jerry very anxiously called Howard Jeffries and said, So what happened? Can she do it? And according to what I heard, Howard said, you know. I think she hasn't danced in a while, but he said she really is. He said, I think she can do it. I think we can beat it out of her, he said. But you know what's amazing? She learns so.

Speaker Oh, well, that was cheating, but. Hey, I got the Oscar.

Speaker It worked out OK for them, I don't think you have to worry about it, but I do want to say this and I do want to say it's very important for me to say this.

Speaker It's important for me to state this, that. Jerry worked very, very hard. He was relentless with me. He was tough on me. But I have to say, and I cannot I will not say that he was cruel to me because he wasn't, which always amazed me because he was cruel to many, many people. Maybe because I worked so hard. I really, really worked very hard. But if I look at all like any kind of dancer in that film, it's because of Jerry and it's because of Howard Jeffries, who had the ability, which is a very unusual thing to tell me where the impulse of a step came from. Not a lot of choreography can do that. I don't even know if people will understand what I'm talking about, but it's because of them. If there's anything about my dancing that is good in that film, it's because of Jerry and and how it Jefferys.

Speaker Tell me about the production. What was unusual about West Side Story for its time?

Speaker I think that.

Speaker One of the things that was unusual about West Side Story for its time.

Speaker Is.

Speaker The kind of dancing that we did in that film, I don't think that kind of dancing had ever been seen on film before, ever, ever, ever, because it was essentially, from my standpoint as an actor, was character dancing. I don't think that I did any step as Anita that he would have given to anyone else in that cast. Anita had her steps a Bernado has his steps. The Jets danced in a certain way. The Sharks danced in a very specific way. It was real character stuff and that was just extraordinary. There are many things about the film that were extraordinary because. They were simply doing in some ways what the play had done. The costumes weren't gorgeous. Whoever heard of a musical where they weren't spangles and shiny things on costumes, nothing even remotely like that. The colors were strange. They were mustard colors and aubergine colors. That was Irene sheriff and and rust colors and purple. I mean, when you think of the extraordinary suit that George JCUA is one wore to the mambo at the gym, which became a huge fashion after the film came out, the purple shirt and that slender, gorgeous black silk jacket and pants, it the whole look of it was so different, so unique. And whoever heard of a hit movie with people who sang opera in an operatic kind of style, you know, what we call the jet style Sopranos stuff. Whoever heard of that? And, you know, how did we get away with it? It's just was unique in every respect. I know that some people from theater were disappointed in the film. They didn't think it lived up to the the play. And I have nothing to say about that. But as a film on its own, it was like nothing else that had ever happened to the screen. And you know what? Nothing else like it has ever happened on the screen.

Speaker The movement that you talked about, just jazzy, actually requires a certain degree of ballad, which is the the kind of dancing we did, required an enormous amount of ballet technique.

Speaker And in fact, during rehearsals, our warm up consisted of a ballet warm up, which, you know what? Well, I'd done it when I was a kid and I studied ballet, but that was a long time ago or as they would say in England donkey's years ago. So I became you know, I was really I was the outsider. I was the outsider in every respect. All of these kids were just trained to dance. I didn't have that frame of reference, I didn't even know about that kind of discipline. It turns out that I'm just a very, very hard worker and Jerry would. Which amazed me, would compliment me now and then I can't tell you how unusual that was in the atmosphere of that particular of this particular film, and he showed me a picture one day, I think Life magazine was taking doing a layout on us. And these were still we were still in rehearsal. And there's a picture of us jumping in the air doing.

Speaker Oh, gosh, I can't remember the word. Those. JT, no, not know what.

Speaker When you jump in the air and do this, what is that, because I'll start this again. HRP is this HRP? I think so. Now I have to start this again, don't I? You can just say.

Speaker Anyway, Jerry one time actually showed me a photo of myself with the other dancers in our ballet warm up, we were doing the jumps in the air like this, and I can't remember the ballet term for it because I'm really not a ballet dancer. And I was the only one whose toes were pointed in fifth position. And he said, look at that, you said, you know, this was meant to be a compliment.

Speaker You're the only one who has your feet pointed in the air. So now and then he would say some really great things to me, but he was very, very tough on me.

Speaker When you say he was very tough on you, what do you mean exactly what do I mean by being tough on me?

Speaker It was relentless. He was he was he would have me do things over and over and over and over till you just couldn't believe it to people who were watching would say she's going to break. She's going to be. And I just never did. And I don't think he was doing it to be me. And he did do things to be mean. So I do know the difference. But he wanted listen, I wasn't Chita Rivera. It's as simple as that, and I think if Jerry had had his way, he would have had Shirra. And I can certainly understand why she was brilliant and she continues to be brilliant. And I was never in that ballpark in terms of dancing, never. So he was really trying to remake me in a way. And that's why he was so hard on me. He wanted it to be the best it could possibly be. And that's as best as I could be, which is why I've always given him full credit, as well as Howard Jeffries, for making me into a dancer that I never, ever was. So I understood that's how it had to be, because I had to at least look as though I belonged with those other dancers. And when I started out, I certainly didn't.

Speaker Bernstein's music was brilliant, but it wasn't necessarily easy for four dancers, right? Can you tell me about that?

Speaker Bernstein's music was extremely difficult. It was all about meter. The meter is so strange. It really isn't strange if you can read music or you can play an instrument. But everything about it was complicated. The the verse to America, Puerto Rico, you lovely island is. I've never seen anyone be able to sing it properly unless they rehearse and rehearse and rehearse because there are so many competing rhythms in the back of it. There's the Klavan.

Speaker And then you've got something completely different is going. And if you're learning the song, you say, well, where am I singing and my singing with a sugar sugar or my singing with the club? And would you find out? Is it. No, no, you're not. What you're singing is three-quarter time. It took me the longest time to understand is Puerto Rico you lovely island.

Speaker That's one to three to three to three. And I remember doing this number with a very famous person who obviously is going to remain nameless, who sings, and we were doing it for a benefit and she just could not get that. Well, it's difficult. It's not as though she was didn't know anything about music. It's very difficult to do when we did the. Not we, because I wasn't in the no, when the knife fight happens and the gang bust up. There was Betty Wolberg are the musical assistant with a megaphone counting out the beats for the kids because they were so crazily uneven. Normally when you're doing a dance, it's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, two, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight. This was things like five, two, three, four, five, six, seven, six, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, seven, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. It was crazy. That was in terms of Meeta, the most difficult thing to do, because they also weren't dance steps. It was a knife fight. It was insanely complicated.

Speaker Tell me about the American number, because Jerry made a decision, I think, to change the number. Right. Tell me about that.

Speaker The American no change, I think, and I think everybody feels that way, too, for the better in the film, in the sense that it wasn't just the girls against the girls, but he brought the boys in and he choreographed a section for them that is just memorable. It's witty, it's hilarious. It's making fun of us in a dancey way. And it's just absolutely delicious and absolutely changes the number forever in the best sense, because then it's really the boys against the girls. And and the you know what's interesting about Gerry's work for the boys, too, he always said to them. If I see one menti arm. And we know what he meant by that, you know, if I see one, Mandyam, you are out of this movie. He was really he was very tough on the boys, he wanted them to be strong dancers and very masculine as he was, he was a very, very strong, very masculine dancer and. That changed America, in my view, forever. I love I love watching it, I think it's an extraordinary piece. I laugh at it as though I've never seen it before and I cheer. It's just brilliant. And it's all about what he did with the boys. The rehearsals on on West Side Story took months, I seem to recall months, it was still a time when actually that was probably the last film where you could get away with that kind of long schedule. I remember that we had gotten a a guarantee that we would be on the film for, oh, gosh, six weeks. And I think we were on the road for about six months. We all earned money. We were thrilled about it. That's Jerry. Jerry can't. Jerry was unable to. Say, print it for very simple reason, given the kind of person he was once you said print it, the imperfection of something was there forever on record. Now, I think what Jerry didn't seem to understand is that when you have more than one person in a scene in a dancing, let's say you have a group of people, everyone is not going to be perfect. It's simply not possible. The odds are that somebody will always do something not necessarily wrong, but just not as perfect as he would like them to be. So he would do it over and over and over, which is what eventually got him fired from the film to our great distress and heartbreak. We were just heartbroken about that. But the rehearsals took. Weeks and weeks and weeks, I mean, I think America took. What I think a couple of weeks to shoot, just a very, very long time, I may be exaggerating, but it's not intentional. It certainly seemed like it was long. We shot from every conceivable angle. We shot it. Not only that, when he wanted to change angles, then you had to do it again over and over and over and over. And that's what took so long.

Speaker And yet, in spite of the fact of the life of the rehearsal and his exact demanding certain exactness from you and being not so nice to people, sometimes it seems like everybody really wanted to please him.

Speaker Not everybody wanted to please. The authoritative. Unforgiving daddy, when you're young and dancers are young for the years, even when they're older, you're always looking for that kind of approval and he pulled it out in little you know, I used to think that he told it out. He had a little tiny paper bag with. Good for use in them. That was my image, a little bitty paper bag and a tweezer and you go, there you are. It's all psychological. Dancers are very insecure people. I mean, there's a Baryshnikov here and there, and there's an array of here and there, but they're not there are many of those. And they become there's always a very strange, symbiotic relationship between I shouldn't say always, but very often a symbiotic relationship between dancers and their masters. And that's really the nature of that kind of relationship. There have been I know that Michael Bennett was known as a rather severe taskmaster and a lot of choreographers have that relationship with. With their children, I don't know how else to put it.

Speaker What can you tell me about Jerry's interaction with Robert Wise?

Speaker I think that Jerry and Robert Wise had a very. Tentative relationship. I think that if Jerry could have gotten away with it, he would have been. Very harsh with Bob Weiss to. As he did with many other people, but this was his co-director, this was a movie and he was he was in a way, slightly out of his element. So he had to he had to give in certain respects. And I think Jerry made up his mind to to give way in ways that he felt wouldn't hurt him or the choreography or the film itself. I think there was some kind of compromise he made with himself, a contract that he made with himself that he would. Put up with Robert Wise, who was such a different kind of person, my goodness, you want to talk about the odd couple? Oh, they were so different. Robert Wise was a very genuinely gentle person. He was never, never, just never raised his voice. He never got angry because he never felt. Threatened in any way until I'm sure, you know, you work with Jerome Robbins and I'm sure that Bob Wise never got over working with Jerry because Jerry was a scary guy and Bob wasn't used to people like that. He was a tough, tough man. And I'm sure that Jerry didn't mince words either. I mean, I don't think Jerry would never say I don't think Jerry would ever say things like. I don't think so. I think Jerry would say no. And, you know, in Hollywood particularly, that's very unusual, people don't you know, they speak around their opinions and I think was very tentative. I think it was careful and I think the one that did the most. Dancing around things was Bob Wise because he felt that, well, you know, they were both stuck with each other, as it were, and Bob did the most compromising. He also, I'm sure, felt that Jerry was an absolute genius and brilliant and and to certain extent, he didn't want to muck around with somebody who had such an original vision. There was a lot of respect. But I also think that Jerry. Understood. That Bob Wise really knew what he was doing, Bob Wise did some brilliant, brilliant things, and I know they were his. I think that the what they call the oh, it's my brain. What did what the when we're all sitting on, it is going to get her kicks tonight. There's a name for the quintan. OK, let me start that.

Speaker When? I think that.

Speaker Robert Wise was completely responsible for the way the quintet, as it's known, was shot. That's the one for those people who don't know what I mean, the one where all the kids are preparing for the showdown and they're all singing tonight, tonight, and then someone else is saying, I need is going to get her kicks tonight, that incredible mélange of melodies and music. And it's so exciting. And it's Jerry it's Robert Wise who came up with the notion of the sun going down as we're getting ready to do this showdown scene. And so the screen begins to turn more and more orange as the sun is setting. I just get goosebumps when I think of that sequence. It's brilliant. And that's Bob Wise, no question. There are certain edit cuts in the the very beginning of the movie when they're establishing the the the two gangs. Where Bob did some brilliant stuff, you see the jets jumping up into the air. And they you see them in the next cut coming down in a completely different location with a basketball in their hand, and it's just fabulous stuff. Robert Wise was a brilliant editor. I mean, everyone knows that he did the Orson Welles Citizen Kane. He was a great, great editor. And that was a huge plus for this movie. Jerome Robbins was a brilliant choreographer. He was not necessarily a great editor. He may have picked up some things and he might have thought of some wonderful things, no doubt. But ultimately, Robert Wise did some fabulous things with the film.

Speaker Tell me about your relationship with Natalie. What was that like?

Speaker What I know of Jerry's relationship with Natalie is really rather scant because it was really off the set, I think he was really crazy about her. I think he had a crush on her and. Which is the only reason I think that he could tolerate her not really being able to move. Well. Because anybody else would have just gotten the hell kicked out of them for what she was unable to do, you know, not her fault, she was cast in it.

Speaker She turned it down and turned it down, turned down. Finally, they, I guess, made an offer she couldn't refuse. And then when she joined the cast, she realized she'd made a terrible mistake. Oh, she did. She really felt way out of her league. And it's why we never became friends with her. We meaning the cast, she was not friendly to us. And we didn't like her because we thought she was so standoffish. We didn't realize and didn't realize until years later that she just was so uncomfortable with us. And, you know, gypsies are rowdy people. You are just jumping and behaving like two year olds all the time. And she just didn't know what to make of us, I think, but. Interestingly. Whatever the difficulties with respect to the dance steps, he did insist that you do them her his way. He didn't he may have made it easier for her, I don't know, but I know that he gave her some steps in the mumba with the gym where she first meets the boy, Tony. She had to do a turn.

Speaker That's impossible for for someone who doesn't dance to make, we must have done.

Speaker About, oh, God, I think 60 takes.

Speaker And it doesn't get easier, it just doesn't get any better, and it was so difficult and it's one of those moments when we had to do it. Also, we were in the background and it's one of those moments when everybody felt, well, gee, she could have said something. It was like, I'm sorry. You know, I this is not my strong suit or come on over to my house on Sunday and let's go by the pool and go swimming and we'll have hot dogs, as she had done that once, just once. I think the cast would have been hers, but she didn't. And so there was always some kind of tension. It's very sad. So Gerri was there, was here for the Gerri was not there for the dance at the gym, Gerri had we got to the gym, to the gym set one morning and everybody was told that Jerry had been fired. We were devastated and they were tears. It was just awful. And, of course, Bob Wise was there feeling terrible because he was getting a taste of how important Jerry was to all of us. Cruel as he may have been to the kids. They worshipped him. We all wish him. I worshipped him. And it was a tough haul. It was a slog, let me tell you. And then Howard Jeffries, the great dance assistant, left with Jerry. So it was up to Tommy Abbot, one of the assistant dance directors, and Tony Mordente to kind of actually Tony Mordente helped a lot with with Natalie's stuff. But it was I think it's the one number that failed. And I think it needed Jerry there. And it may not have succeeded anyway, because it's it's such a proscenium number that, no, we're the two gangs are competing with the dancing and you have to see it all on stage. And I just don't know that it was possible to really shoot it so that you could get that feeling. It's the one number that, in my view, that just didn't work the way it should have. Jerry might have helped it. I don't know, because. We were in the middle of shooting it when he was fired, so he obviously didn't come up with too many answers either with with respect to how to shoot at the moment, you have to cut away from one dancer or a group of dancers to another. You lose momentum. You have to know when to cut away and when not to cut at all, to just keep it head to toe and. It just I don't think it worked.

Speaker There's actually correspondence in the Robbins' papers that show he agrees with you in your time.

Speaker Is that so? Yeah. And did you say why?

Speaker I would love to know for the reason you're talking about that it just looks like people are having a lot of fun at the gym. But the tension between the two groups didn't come through in the shooting, and I think it would have been different.

Speaker Had he been there, but we'll never know.

Speaker One person said that Jerry was sort of the film's emotional center and what would what do you think his presence meant on the film?

Speaker What a wonderful way to put it. Who said that?

Speaker You know, it was somebody it wasn't somebody in an interview with us. It was somebody who was talking in the West Side Story documentary.

Speaker It wasn't Howard I can't remember who it was.

Speaker That's great, that's great. So you asked me the question again. What was it?

Speaker Well, how would you, uh, what difference do you think jury's presence made on the film?

Speaker Jerry. I think Jerry was the soul and the heart of the movie I always did, he was. He was a lot of things. He was the core, he was the rage. He was paying all of that stuff that was that that is the film is filled with the play is filled with really I think has everything to do with Jerry. And when he left the film, a lot of that was lost. Some of us were able to maintain it, but it was not easy. I did a boy like that without Jerry. It was then just Bob Wise. And I missed Jerry so badly. I was really I was go to my dressing room and cry because I knew that it could have been so much better had Jerry been there. It's just I cook who can explain what that certain thing is. But he just gave you this. Oh, I wish I could think of the word. He gave you the strength and enormous strength. When Jerry was around, you felt very powerful. Interestingly enough, even though sometimes he made people feel very inept and weak, it was such a dichotomy. But you also felt so in charge.

Speaker Tell it. Hold on just a second. I'm getting a little warm here. OK. All right. Check it out.

Speaker Yelling at me as I'm doing a turn in attitude turn, I love it because he was pleased. I love looking at and saying I made him smile. Yeah. Yeah.

Speaker Here, you make sure she has that, OK, I understand Gerri was there for about 60 percent or so of shooting and one of the numbers.

Speaker Well, let me ask you, was he there for cool?

Speaker Jerry was definitely there for the no cool. It's my favorite number in the film. I think it's an extraordinary number in many respects. One, it's a real character driven number. It is one of the most intense dance numbers I've ever seen on the screen in my life.

Speaker I love Moulin Rouge and I love and I love Chicago, but I've never seen anything like this in my life, I was there just to watch for the entire well, I was I watched a lot of the shoot things that I wasn't in because I just enjoyed it so much. It was so thrilling. I've never seen. Dancers work so hard in my life as they did in school, you may recall that the ceiling of the they're in a garage of the garage is very low. And we were shooting this in summer and it was hot as hell. And those kids were just suffering something awful. And they did it again over and over and over. And then they would change angles and they'd go through that thing again, over and over and over. It was he had those kids in a frenzy, in a controlled kind of frenzy like this. And it shows and it's supposed to be very frightening because now somebody is dead and they're responsible for the death of this young man. And you can just it's palpable in that scene.

Speaker And that's good old Jerry scaring the hell out of everybody, working them to death, and I love him. I just I love him when I think of the things he did.

Speaker What an amazing man. And he was there for America.

Speaker He was there for America. He was there for he was there for the cool. He was there for Officer Krupke. And that shows I just think it shows when he's not there, there's something missing. There's an element missing and I think probably has a great deal to do with how the kids, the dancers would perform. They just performed differently for him. No question.

Speaker There's an edge or an intensity on. Of course.

Speaker Oh, yeah, oh, you want to hear about history by the prologue, it's silly to show you how crazy was.

Speaker There's a wonderful story of something that happened during the shooting of the prologue in New York City, which, by the way, all of those areas were really linked what is now Lincoln Center. And at one point, the dancers as all dancers between takes the very mischievous. They're rowdy. And it was also a release because everything was so intense. They started to do a rain dance and they had been plagued by rain anyway and by God.

Speaker It started to rain. And Jerry got angry at them. He got angry at them because it was their fault. The rain dance brought on the rain. He just got insanely unreasonable. It's marvelous. He was not.

Speaker Oh, tell me about Austinite.

Speaker What do you remember about Jerry that night? It must have been incredible.

Speaker Oscar night was obviously a night to remember. It was the first time I had won anything for anything. For starters, what a way to get started, right. I never got to see Jerry. I never got to see Natalie, Natalie apparently was deeply, deeply disappointed that she didn't and this is now and doing here say. To I want to be sure that's on the record, but we never even saw her, George and I never, never. Not a word from Natalie, but hey, congratulations. Isn't this wonderful? And Gerry was with Natalie and. I never saw him that night with George and I, we were each other's dates, I had flown in from Manila, the Philippines, where I was doing a crappy movie about World War Two. And so it was really even more special that I flew in and I actually won. And the the film broke all records at that time for the most awards of any movie until Titanic, I believe so it was just an exciting and wonderful night and.

Speaker You know, I honestly don't remember Jerry coming over to say anything. I don't remember it, and if if I'm wrong, then, you know, God strike me dead, but I honest to God, I don't remember running into Jerry at all.

Speaker That's incredible.

Speaker Oh, I don't know, oh, showbusiness is strange. Um, you know what, I believe that so that what I said is so because I never got a note from him. Nothing, nothing. Never got a note from Natalie. It was bizarre.

Speaker Um, to what do you attribute the film's lasting success?

Speaker I think the film's lasting success really is should not be surprising, it was unique not only for its time and continues to be unique. The language is somewhat dated, but in fact, now it's become a kind of a wonderful old treasure, you know, people saying I'm hip and that sort of thing. But it's just it's like a jewel. It's. Different from any other movie ever made at any time. I talked to young people who've seen it for the first time who were just absolutely overwhelmed despite the language which is, you know, so dated. But they're astonished. They're absolutely I get real admiration from young people who have seen the film recently because they're just so impressed and that I think it's it's here to stay forever. It's the one of the great classics.

Speaker How important was it for you in your career?

Speaker What's interesting about West Side Story with respect to my career is that it didn't do a thing for me. People talk about the curse of winning an award, it's not true. That's nonsense. What happens too often to people who get Oscars for best supporting actor is that they their agents usually price them out of the out of their their range and they just ask for too much money simply because they won an Oscar. And it doesn't happen that way because you're really not a star. You just happen to have won an Oscar. I think what happened to me is that I played the ultimate Latina and there was just nothing else in the view of those who were in a position to put me in films and to cast me. There was no where to go from there. I was offered some gang type movies. It's unbelievable. I didn't do a film for seven years afterwards. I had story. Now that was part of that was out of choice because I was not about to do those little gang movies again or play another one of those little cliches, stereotypical Latinas. So to that extent it was my choice. But I just I thought, hey, I won the Oscar for this. I'm not going to denigrate and diminish the importance of this for some other crappy movie. So hahaha I showed them I didn't work for seven years. I did a lot of other things, I did plays, I did television, but I didn't do movies.

Speaker Heartbreaking.

Speaker What did you learn from Jerry?

Speaker I think what I learned from Jerry is that you never, ever, but this is part of my makeup, too, anyway, so that's maybe why he never picked on me. I learned that you never stop trying to be better. Never. You can't be perfect, but you can certainly try. I remember somebody telling me someone who was a dancer extra in the mambo at the gym that they used to watch me when everyone was having a ten minute break. I never took a break. I would keep going over the steps and go. This sounds very self-serving, but the truth is that I really felt I had to do that. It wasn't noble. It was something that I felt I had to do. I had to keep up with those other kids who were just so brilliant all on their own. And he just simply it's not that I learned it from Jerry. It's just that he he gave it great value. He it was a way of saying to me, yes, do that, always do that. And I do to this day, I work very, very hard at whatever it is I do.

Speaker When you think of him now, if you think of him, what would be foremost in your mind?

Speaker I think of Jerry all the time and I wish I would give anything to work with him again. I really do. I would give anything, well, almost anything to work with Jerry again. What an amazing experience. But I did do it and I did it twice. And who could ask for more?

Rita Moreno
Interview Date:
2006-12-12
Runtime:
1:06:52
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-5t3fx74f82, cpb-aacip-504-183416tg4r, cpb-aacip-504-ff3kw58425
MLA CITATIONS:
"Rita Moreno, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 12 Dec. 2006, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1008
APA CITATIONS:
(2006, December 12). Rita Moreno, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1008
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Rita Moreno, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). December 12, 2006. Accessed January 24, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1008

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