Rita Moreno on ’Life Without Makeup’

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Monday September 5, 2011
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Rita Moreno laughed when reminded of a character she played on 'Father Knows Best" in 1958. "That's right," she said. "It was Chanthini." It was the role of an exchange student from India living with the Anderson family, and it seemed a change of pace from the usual assortment of Hispanic and Native American roles in the string of mostly forgettable movies she made in the 1950s.

"At least I wasn't saying, 'Why you no love me no more?' But it was still ridiculous. I was sick of putting on all that dark makeup and those black wigs." She wasn't happy at all in Hollywood, except for the roles in the movies that book-ended that part of her career: "Singin' in the Rain" and "West Side Story." But she'll be playing for laughs, along with typecasting commentary, as she relates much of her Hollywood years in Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Not a showbiz show

There are also incidents that take her story right up to the very present that can’t get a funny spin, more on which later, but there will also be singing and dancing and a celebratory I’m-still-here overall motif. Moreno sees the show as more than, well, a show. "This not a showbiz show," she said from her Berkeley home. "It’s not even a show. It’s a play." A play that Moreno didn’t particularly want to do.

During her 2004 star turn as Maria Callas in "Master Class," she’d share life and career anecdotes with Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone. He was soon suggesting that they collaborate on creating a stage piece based on her life. Her answer was unequivocally in the negative, but Taccone would periodically, and unsuccessfully, press for a change of heart.

"Then a couple of years ago, he called me up and said, ’This is the last time I’m going to ask. Do I have to remind you that you’re now 77?’ He talked about legacy and stuff like that, that I have a responsibility to my people, and I very reluctantly agreed to do it."

The process began with a series of interview sessions conducted by Taccone and an assistant, starting with the voyage she and her mother took from Puerto Rico to New York when Moreno was just five. "He would ask me a question, and often that would prompt another question, and that one would prompt yet another one," she said. "He thinks of everything, and he doesn’t forget a thing you said. The only thing that drove him buggers was that I do not remember dates."

Oh, maybe there were a few other things that drove him buggers. There was a shocking story from her days as a Hollywood starlet that included an epithet directed at her so vile that Moreno refused to say it, despite Taccone’s pleas to say the words. "I was this sweet-looking girl at a cocktail party in a cute dress borrowed from the costume department, but I just couldn’t say the cuss words even though Tony said it will just be so shocking to the audience. So I was going to tell the story but without exact quotes."

Then one day, Moreno announced she was ready to say the word. "Tony would scream and yell and say, ’You fought me so long on that, now you want to do it?’ I do have a potty mouth, but there is something about being on stage that makes me hold my head up high."

Sense of liberation

The change of heart came from a terribly sad place. Lenny Gordon, Moreno’s husband of 45 years, died last summer well into the autobiographical show’s development. But it also gave her a sense of liberation in what she could say out loud to hundreds of strangers every night. "When I said I went into this very reluctantly, certainly one of the reasons was because Lenny was a very private person, and I thought there were things I would have to do or say that would make him anxious. There are tons of things that people don’t know about me."

Perhaps her tumultuous affair with Marlon Brando is one of them, and the first-act curtain comes down on her attempted suicide when that affair goes sour. "This is not a dishy show in any respect, but Marlon Brando is covered because he played an extremely important part in my life. It’s a good way to end the first act, because up to then it has been pretty jolly."

Throughout the show there are musical numbers both associated with her career and interpolated because of a personal importance. She is abetted by two male dancers from Los Angeles recruited by choreographer Lee Martino. (David Galligan is the director.) "I said I did not want to dance with boys. I’m really too old to have boys around me. I wanted them to be men."

Because of the long recovery from knee replacement surgery, the show was delayed from its scheduled premiere as the finale to the previous Berkeley Rep season to the premiere of the current one. "I’m OK, but I’m not great," Moreno said of her recovery. "I call what I’m doing as Sorta Kinda Dancing, or SKD. I’m going to be dancing like a 79-year-old with a bad knee, and I’m sure the audience will be empathetic. If not, screw em if they can’t take a joke."

Will she be performing "America" from "West Side Story," which helped her win an Academy Award in 1962? "That I’m not going to tell you," she said. "I want there to be surprises for the audience."

But she was happy to reveal one of her favorite moments in the show, when she sings along with the Pied Pipers’ recording of "Dream" while reenacting a moment from her childhood when she would bring a radio out onto the fire escape in her tenement apartment. "It’s one of the most lovely numbers in the show," she said. "We’re going to have a gorgeous star drop, which cost a fortune that we begged and pleaded to get."

The second act has a different tone from the first, though Moreno was hard-placed to describe it. "It’s dense with material and anecdotes, and how I worked on my acting skills after I left Hollywood." And, of course, the death of her husband, a former cardiologist who became her manager, became an unplanned component.

"It’s very touching, but it’s not morose," she said. "Every time I go through that part, people who are watching always have tears in their eyes. When I do talk about him in the play, boy, it’s hard not to cry. But I don’t want the audience to feel they’re being worked."

Moreno hopes to play major regional theaters while continuing to hone the show. "My aim is for New York," she said. "I’m not killing myself like this for two months at Berkeley Rep."

Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup will run Sept. 2-Oct. 30 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $14.50-$78. There is a night/OUT performance and post-show party for LGBT audiences on Sept. 9. More info at (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.