Rita Moreno doesn’t sound 84 on the phone. The singer and actor who burst onto the entertainment stage as the fiery Anita in the 1962 movie musical “West Side Story” is still as sassy as her original smart-talking character. She dishes on Hollywood directors, laughs at being “an old fart” and is passionate about politics. And when she plays The Washington Center for the Performing Arts Oct. 13, Olympia audiences will get a chance to hear that sassiness in person, along with songs, memories and jokes.
Even before her “West Side Story” debut, Moreno was busy. Growing up in the Bronx after her family emigrated from Puerto Rico when she was 5, she was spotted early by talent scouts, debuting on Broadway at 13. By 19 she’d hit Hollywood, with films such as “The King and I” (as the demure-but-smart slave Tuptim) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (the ingénue Zelda Zanders). She went on to become one of just 12 entertainers to win an Emmy, Oscar, Tony and Grammy award — but more importantly, perhaps, she fought hard against the stereotypical roles she was given as a Latina to open up the entertainment field for actors of color.
Moreno’s still busy. With a recent CD, a memoir, guest roles in shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” voiceover roles in “Nina’s World” and “Rio 2,” a new Netflix series in January and a 2015 Kennedy Center award, Moreno isn’t slowing down. A recent phone conversation discussed her South Sound show, that hilarious appearance on “The Muppet Show” and just how she gets all her energy.
Q. Your career is so full. Where do you get your energy?
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A. I’m like the Energizer bunny — I just keep on going and going. Working and being engaged is the thing that keeps people alive and happy. You have to find things that interest you, and that keeps you alert. That’s what you’re after. You can never be young again, but you can be alert.
Q. Tell us about your performance — what will you be doing?
A. It’s a performance about my life, with all the tales, funny stories, references to the love of my life, show biz anecdotes.
Q. Can you give us an example?
A. Are you crazy? Then I couldn’t tell that story! Ideally, the show should be called “Me.” Actually, that’s a good idea, I should do that.
Q. Will you sing?
A. I’ll sing a couple of a cappella songs related to those times. … People are usually pretty surprised that my voice is intact and on pitch. It doesn’t have that old-lady wobble.
Work your voice out, every day. It doesn’t have to be that slow vibrato that makes you sound ancient.
Q. What’s your secret for that?
A. Work your voice out, every day. It doesn’t have to be that slow vibrato that makes you sound ancient. I do vocal warm-ups that start very slow and gradually speed up. Of course, I’m not Barbara Streisand, she probably doesn’t even have to warm up. My voice is not extremely beautiful — it’s just pretty.
Q. So do you have a favorite genre?
A. I love Broadway stuff, the very dramatic stuff. I’m also doing a cabaret show on tour. And funny songs — I love to make people laugh.
Q. What about that rap you did at the Berklee College of Music commencement speech in May?
A. Oh, that speech! People were stunned. They didn’t know what to think. I started with this acting piece and I could tell people were thinking, oh yeah, she’s an actor, she’s doing an acting piece. Then I started to rap, and on the video you can see the people behind me looking amazed — they’re thinking, How is this old lady doing rap?!
Q. Did you write the words?
A. Oh no, I couldn’t write that. No, my manager, who’s an old fart like me, wrote it. I couldn’t believe he did it either.
Q. Congratulations on your Kennedy Center honor. Do you feel it is a good step, after your long career working to break racial stereotypes in entertainment?
A. It’s a very big thing. It’s a great honor, and I’m more than thrilled and delighted. It’s been a long, hard struggle for people from many nationalities to get recognition. Our culture has done a huge turnaround, and that is thrilling.
It’s been a long, hard struggle for people from many nationalities to get recognition (in entertainment). Our culture has done a huge turnaround, and that is thrilling.
Q. Has our culture changed in its racial biases?
A. It’s changed, but not changed enough. The door is certainly open now, but maybe not wide enough. But it will happen as it always will — very slowly. There’s something about cultural bias that’s hard won and hard to die. It ain’t gonna happen overnight.
Q. Especially in the current political climate?
A. Oh, we won’t even get into that! This is probably one of the most frightening times in recent history.
Q. There are many wonderful moments in your career, but one favorite has to be that duet “Fever” with Animal the drummer on “The Muppet Show.”
A. That’s one of my favorites ever. I watch it all the time, and I laugh as though I’d never seen it before. It took me a whole afternoon to do it, because the bass line was prerecorded and so I had to stop and figure out where I was (in the music). But Frank Oz was moving Animal, and it was so funny that I kept breaking up during takes. Actually, if you look carefully right after I bang the cymbals on Animal at the end, you can see my nostrils flair — I’m trying so hard not to laugh.
Q. What’s most important to you in your life and career?
A. My main focus in life is my family, my daughter and grandchildren are everything. In my career, I love to be funny — that’s something I’m always seeking.
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13.
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.