Most people are nervous when all eyes are on them. But for the legendary Rita Moreno, the stage is where she feels at home. “I just love to perform,” she says. “It’s fun to make people smile, and to bring tears to their eyes. It makes you feel really good to share what is the best of you with an audience.” Moreno began headlining Vegas showrooms in the Rat Pack days, and now she’s returning to Las Vegas to perform Peter and the Wolf with the Las Vegas Philharmonic at The Smith Center.
Over the past 70 years, Moreno’s personal best has also been the best in the business—she’s a member of a select group of performers who have won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards. She received her Academy Award for playing Anita in 1961’s West Side Story, a movie and a performance that set the standard for musical films. “Which [award] means the most?” she contemplates. “Well, for a long time the most important one was the first one, the Oscar, but they’ve replaced it. Now I’ve got the Kennedy Center Honor. That was really something.”
Moreno’s love for her audiences goes back to her beginnings. “I was 4 years old. I used to dance for [my] grandpa—that’s when it all started,” she recalls. “I was a tiny little girl in Puerto Rico. I thought, ‘This is good. I enjoy all of this attention.’ And if any performer tells you they don’t care for the attention part, they’re full of shit!” In the nearly eight decades since, she’s created a career that’s unique in its span of time and variety of genre and style.
On television, Moreno has guest-starred on series from Father Knows Best to Grey’s Anatomy; she starred on the pioneering kids’ show The Electric Company, and also had an important recurring role in HBO’s gritty prison drama Oz. “I’ve worked with so many people, and I love the variety of what I’ve done. That’s what you want as an actor,” she says. “When I was starting out, you had to be able to do everything—drama, comedy, dancing, singing. Now it’s different. People specialize: They find their thing and that’s what they stick to.”
Moreno’s latest small-screen role is the Netflix reboot of the ’70s sitcom One Day at a Time—this time with a college-dropout handyman and a Cuban-American single mom, with Moreno as the tough yet loving grandmother. “It’s very, very funny,” she says. “I’ve been dubbing it into Spanish myself, which is fun; people [in Spanish-speaking countries] will get to hear my voice. I’ve watched every episode in a screening room with the headphones on and it is hilarious.”
Of course, One Day at a Time is only one of the legend’s current projects. “I’ve been doing my lecture and my cabaret act for the past two months … and I’m about to come to Las Vegas to do Peter and the Wolf, which is just wonderful,” Moreno says. She will do the narration to accompany the Philharmonic’s rendition of Prokofiev’s song-story. “It’s such a beautiful piece—the music. And then it’s very endearing, to look out and see all of those little faces,” she says. Moreno enjoys drawing her young audience into the magic she creates. “There’s a part where I get them to participate,” she says. “Peter gets eaten and I tell them ,‘Well, if we make this kind of noise, he might come back.’ They love that. We have such fun with it. It’s amazing how involved they get in it. I just love children.”
So what keeps Moreno busier than most people half—heck, a third—of her age? “My secret is I love what I do and I keep doing it. I’m in my 80s and I’m still touring and performing for people,” she says. “I’m so lucky. I’ve been lucky—if I get a hangnail, I don’t complain.”
Home for the Holidays With Rita Moreno
Dec. 3, 2 & 7 p.m.; Dec. 4, 2 p.m.; $30-$109; The Smith Center, thesmithcenter.com