Actress, singer, dancer, author, voice-over artist.
The legendary Rita Moreno has conquered nearly every avenue in show business. So much so that she’s one of only eight living performers who has won the entertainment industry’s “grand slam” of statuettes: an Oscar (“West Side Story,” for which she also received a Golden Globe), Emmy (“The Muppet Show,” “The Rockford Files”), Tony (“The Ritz”) and Grammy Award (“The Electric Company Album”).
The accolades don’t stop there. The octogenarian (!) Kennedy Center honoree has also been honored for her work on the Chicago stage, winning a Jeff Award for best actress (“The Rose Tattoo”), and the Sarah Siddons Award (“The Odd Couple”). And this past May, Moreno delivered Northeastern Illinois’ commencement address and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by the university.
Moreno returns to Chicago Sept. 16 as a presenter at the second annual Fifth Star Awards celebration at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The awards, presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, honor exemplary Chicago artists and/or institutions that have made significant contributions on the city’s cultural scene. This year’s honorees are author Sandra Cisneros (“The House on Mango Street”); children’s music artist and educator Ella Jenkins; architect, theorist and designer Stanley Tigerman; WXRT-FM (93.1) program director Norm Winer, and the Joffrey Ballet.
“I am presenting the award to Sandra Cisneros,” Moreno said excitedly during a recent phone conversation. “I can’t wait to finally meet her.”
Moreno, who is voicing the character Abuelita in the Sprout animated series “Nina’s World” (it debuts Sept. 25), is most excited these days about her new CD, “Una Vez Mas” (Sony Latin), released earlier this month on iTunes (it’s available on Amazon starting Sept. 25). Produced by the legendary Emilio Estefan, the album (whose title translates to “Once Again”) is Moreno’s first release in 30 years and her first all-Spanish outing.
“I ran into Emilio at a benefit event. I had never met him before. So I walked up to him and introduced myself,” Moreno recalled. “And he said ‘We have to do an album together.’ Well, I thought that was really nice, and I said, ‘Let’s see if he calls me or my manager.’ A week later, he did call and my manager started making plans. I was so damn excited! Soon after I was in Emilio’s gorgeous studio in Miami.”
The album is a mix of uptempo and ballad, making full use of the singer’s far-reaching vocals.
“Emilio sent me 24 tracks to listen to and pick from. And I also wanted to do a few tracks that I’ve been doing in my cabaret act for years, such as ‘Brazil’ and ‘Aranuez’ [‘En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor’]. It took us a number of months to cut the tracks [list] down to 10 [there’s also a bonus track], and I’m just beside myself with happiness about it.”
One of her favorites on the album is the Spanish version of “Somewhere,” the iconic tune from the musical “West Side Story.” With the gorgeous guitar accompaniment of Julio Martinez, Moreno has transformed the song into a bolero. But it wasn’t as simple as revisiting one of Stephen Sondheim’s and Leonard Bernstein’s greatest hits.
“I just really wanted to sing that song,” Moreno said, “But here’s the backstory. ‘West Side Story’ has been done in every Spanish-speaking country around the world. When we tried to find Spanish lyrics for ‘Somewhere,’ they didn’t exist. We called the Bernstein estate: dead end. What I discovered is that when the show originally opened in New York, the song was used in a dream ballet sequence in Act 2 and sung by a girl off-stage in the wings. Once that show was redone, they never used ‘Somewhere’ again. So when it played in Latino countries, nobody ever had to translate that song for the productions. Emilio and [co-producer Nicolas Tovar] ended up writing the Spanish lyrics for this album. The Bernstein estate was thrilled!”
For the rest of the album, Moreno said she wanted “a couple of really saucy [songs] because I love those kinds of songs! They’re so much fun to sing. And I also wanted some really romantic ballads. ‘Punto de Referencia’ is a gorgeous bachata ballad that suddenly goes into salsa. But I had a devil of a time getting that song down. Bachatas, as a rule, don’t have too many words for the music. It’s hard to get a meaningful breath in. Just singing in Spanish was a whole new musical sensibility for me. Breaks I would never do in an English song, I’m suddenly singing as a Latina artist. The syncopation is completely different from when I’m singing in English. You use all of your emotions when you sing in Spanish; you hide nothing.
“I’m an actress who sings. I don’t have a glorious voice,” Moreno continued. “At best, I have a pretty voice. I have good pitch and very discerning ear. I’m just so happy with this album.”
For details about the Fifth Star Awards, visit fifthstarawards.org