Rita Moreno: Hurricane Rita

She's never played gay, but that doesn't stop stage and screen legend Rita Moreno from talking all things gay as she tours with her one-woman cabaret act.

BY Brandon Voss

February 04 2009 12:00 AM ET

Marking her first Los Angeles stage appearance in 25 years, Rita Moreno will bring her acclaimed one-woman cabaret act Little Tributes to the Conga Room for a single night on February 19. One of a very short list of performers to win an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy, the Puerto Rico-born, New York-bred spitfire has also won generations of fans with her portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film version of West Side Story, plus her work on PBS’s The Electric Company and HBO’s Oz. Still sassy at 77, Moreno told Advocate.com why she’s been cruising with the gay community since her role as a bathhouse betty in The Ritz.

Advocate.com: You most recently performed Little Tributes at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room. Did gay fans come out to show their support?
Rita Moreno: They did, and it was great to see them again. I played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in London, so I do a big chunk from that in the show, and of course gay people just love it — gay men, especially, but I get a lot of gay women at my show too.

What will you be wearing at the Conga Room?
Something you will want on your body but can’t have. [Laughs] For starters, I wear spectacular shoes. I get on top of the piano a lot, so the shoes are on full display. And I have some beautiful gowns. I’ve stopped wearing separates now, so I have a burnt-orange silk velvet cowl-neck dress that goes down to the floor, and that one’s a big hit with the gay crowd. Oh, they go mad! Another is a Diane von Furstenberg black-and-white print that fits like a sausage skin — they all do, actually. But gay men and women seem to particularly love that I go bare-armed, which at 77 is a bit of a feat.

Do you have a multitude of gay stylists?
Oh, no, it’s all me, a team of one. I am a multitude. Glamour is my middle name, and you barely see it anymore — especially in cabaret. So I go out there dressed to fuckin’ kill, my dear.

Your show celebrates some unexpected and underappreciated musical gems from Broadway classics. Likewise, is there a lower-profile role on your résumé that’s worthy of more attention?
Yes, as a matter of fact. I played Vince D’Onofrio’s mother in Law and Order: Criminal Intent in three episodes and died in the final one. It was a marvelous part. She's dying of cancer, and she’s schizophrenic, so I look like the wrath of God in it. After the first day of makeup, I said, “Do not bring a mirror to me. I do not want to see myself.”

Have you ever played a lesbian role?
No. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Not even your guest spot as Coach Stone on The Nanny?
[Laughs] Oh, you remember that one, huh? She could’ve been. She was more dykey than anything else. That woman was a guy!

If you were cast as a lesbian, whom would you pick to play your on-screen lover?
What a wonderful question. Who would I really love to schtupp? I’d have to say Angelina Jolie. But if I were to pick a Latina, then I would say Eva Longoria. She’s just hotness.

I sort of hoped you’d say Chita Rivera. How do you feel about the persistent rumors of your feud stemming from the fact that, even though she earned a Tony for playing Anita in West Side Story, you got to play Anita on film?
Oh, it’s gotten very old and boring at this point. Chita performed at the Rrazz Room recently, and of course I went to see her, and we laughed and carried on a lot. And she came to see my show at Feinstein’s in New York, which was really delicious because she has the most raucous, dirty laugh you’ve ever heard. In fact, in my show I tell a wonderful Chita Rivera–Rita Moreno story, which I’m not going to give away now because it’s too good.

Growing up in New York, what was your earliest exposure to gay people?
One of my best friends in grammar school was a gay boy. Well, I knew he was gay, but he did not. His name was Eddie Lopez, and we used to have the time of our lives. We drove everybody in our families crazy because we couldn’t stop jumping around, singing songs, and just laughing. He was such a campy Cuban kid with skin the color of milk, curly blond hair, light blue eyes, and a pretty little face. For me, it was never anything complicated. It was the most natural thing. He was just a terrific person.

Tags: Theater

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