27
Jan 11

The FT Top 100 Songs of All Time #10: West Side Story OBC – “America”

FT8 comments • 2,886 views

Poor Rosalia, the only Puerto Rican in West Side Story who seems to actually like Puerto Rico. In contrast to Maria, who prances around the bridal shop pretending to be Miss America (despite the competition being open only to members “of good health and of the white race” at the time), and Anita, whose witty and leggy defence of their adopted home is the basis of the catchiest song in the show and indeed FREAKY TRIGGER’S #10 BEST SINGLE OF ALL TIME, Rosalia is OK with Puerto Rico. In the play script she is described as “quietly dressed and not too bright”, which might explain why she doesn’t really have a problem with the Sharks’ homeland (although it does not explain why the costumers for the 2009 revival gave her such stupid hair). But Puerto Rico, according to Rosalia, is kind of okay. You know, it’s pretty. There are some nice tropical breezes and pineapples there. Maybe sometime she’d like to go back and visit.

NOT SO FAST, IMMIGRANT! You’ve made your choice and you can never go back!

also, in America, purple does not clash with red

[pic: also, in America, girls don’t wear ponytails on top of their heads. Join us in the first world, chiquita!]

Rosalia is pretty much erased in the film version to make way for a fiery musical skirmish (I know, another one!) between RITA MORENO and GEORGE CHAKIRIS and some other dancers of various non-white ethnicities. But she lives on in the stage version and ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST recording ft CHITA RIVERA LA-LA-LA-LA-LA.

It’s a rare song that is not quite as racist as it first sounds, as this one is with all the exaggerated Spanish accents and slightly awkward English. The film version, which everyone knows better (sexy dance-off! boys vs girls! it’s just like the end of High School Musical 2 only with more than one Latina!) is sharper about the social commentary; the original is basically a group of teenage girls pressuring another teenage girl into conforming, and by “conform” they mean “assimilate into majority white culture”.

Which is something the creators were familiar with. Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Arthur Laurents (script) were all middle-class Jewish guys whose parents or grandparents had moved to the US from eastern Europe and Made Good. All their families created the kind of success for themselves that allowed their sons to loll around on the Upper West Side fucking around in music school and making a “living” off arty stage musical concepts that are, it must be said, pretty wanky.*

So when it comes to immigrants to the US, West Side Story is firmly on Team Stop Complaining, You’re Lucky To Even Be Here. Because if Stephen Sondheim’s white immigrant grandparents could make it in this country fifty years ago, so can you! To its credit, the film (1961) corrects this with the Puerto Rican characters complaining in unison, “Your mother’s a Pole, your father’s a Swede/But you were born here, that’s all that you need”. But that level of self-awareness hasn’t made it into the earlier (1957) stage version from whence this version of the song comes.

Laurents, Sondheim and the characters all seem to have forgotten that in the mid-1950s, when the story is set, Puerto Rico was in the middle of a tremendous violent military revolution against the US government. The only hint of this conflict in “West Side Story” is the Sharks’ warlike visages (although the violent arm of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement was mostly led by women, which is pretty great) and Anita’s throwaway line, “Always the bullets flying…” during the intro verse. The revolution involved the US National Guard bombing several major Puerto Rican towns and, in 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists storming the US House of Representatives with handguns and wounding five congressmen. You’d think that would come up sometime. But the way Laurents and Sondheim write them, except for one, these Puerto Rican women don’t care about Puerto Rico, don’t want to be Puerto Rican, don’t even want to think about Puerto Rico unless it’s an extended sarcastic putdown that turns into a feisty, flirty dance number with a nice catchy tune.

But it’s a fair cop really if you think about it! I mean, who needs independence when you can have a Cadillac and a washing machine?

*Thank you Mirisch Studios for cutting the tediously surreal “Nightmare Ballet” sequence and playing up the jolly songs like “Gee, Officer Krupke”.**
**Although that said, it is always worth mentioning that “Gee, Officer Krupke” is in COMPLETELY THE WRONG PLACE in the film, since the whole POINT is that these kids are singing “We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood/Deep down inside us, there is good” AFTER THEY HAVE JUST KILLED TWO PEOPLE IN A GANG FIGHT AND ARE TRYING TO PROCESS THAT IN THE ONLY WAY THEY KNOW HOW BECAUSE THEY ARE KIDS. HONESTLY. Worst misstep in a film adaptation of a musical since __________ (fill in your own in comments).

Comments

  1. 1
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 27 Jan 2011 #

    I’d just like to mention that I played Tony in the 1991 Tennessee Governor’s School production of this show in Murfreesboro, and in the middle of “One Hand, One Heart” I completely FORGOT THE WORDS. The image of my Maria’s eyes widening in shock and then horror as I stared deeply into them – in what I hoped came across as soulful silence – is indelibly stamped into my brain. That said, it’s the worst song in the show and at least I spared the audience a verse of it.

    Far more unforgivable in that production was the cutting of not only “Cool” (“Boy, boy, crazy boy!”) but “I Feel Pretty” which is truly a camp classic for the ages. (Compounding the camp is the necessity of pronouncing the “t”s in “pretty”, which just sounds ludicrously prissy coming from an American.)

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 27 Jan 2011 #

    That sounds prissy, oh so prissy.

  3. 3
    Kerry on 27 Jan 2011 #

    All songs sung by Latinas have to go “la-la-la-la-la-la-la” for at least 20% of the chorus. It is 1950s musical theatre rules.

  4. 4
    swanstep on 28 Jan 2011 #

    Best song ever for grasping the difference between 6/8 and 3/4 time (the chorus ingeniously alternates bars of 6/8 and 3/4). Many of Bernstein’s tv lectures for young people (most of which were originally broadcast in prime time – how times change! – are up on youtube: they’re fantastic).

  5. 5
    Erithian on 28 Jan 2011 #

    And on that “every chart since 1960” jukebox I was mentioning a few weeks back, I treated the pub to The Nice’s version of “America” the other day – some puzzled expressions, I can tell you.

  6. 6
    punctum on 28 Jan 2011 #

    That’ll be enough Emersoning.

  7. 7
    ottersteve on 31 Jan 2011 #

    One for the pub quiz!

    Who is the only actress to receive an Oscar, a Tony, A Grammy and an Emmy? (Not for the same thing obviously)

    A: Rita Moreno

  8. 8
    Elizabeth on 11 Jun 2011 #

    I didn;t read it. It was WAY to long!

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