America

Words by Stephen Sondheim; music by Leonard Bernstein, 1957

Who is singing this song? Puerto Rican migrants in New York. What are their feelings about New York? What were their expectations? How realistic were they? Where did they get these ideas? What clues does the song give about conditions in Puerto Rico?

Why did they talk about going back home? Do they want to be in New York or back in Puerto Rico? Point out lines that show both points of view. Why might they have mixed feelings? What are the advantages of each place? How does this dilemma make them feel? How does the song's structure express the mixed feelings? Lines extolling virtues of America answered by lines of "argument" pointing out reality.

What does line "Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico's in America" (Broadway lyrics) mean? Puerto Rico is a US Territory, so they are Americans, not immigrants. How does this make their migrant experience different than immigrants (see "Deportees")? Other immigrants in the 1950-60s (displaced persons after World War II, Mexicans, Cuban refugees)? Immigrants from other eras?

How did the songwriters—who are not Puerto Rican—make the song sound Latino? Rhythm, dialect.

"America" performed by Chita Rivera on West Side Story Original Broadway Cast Recording, New York: Columbia Broadway Masterworks [SK60724], © 1998. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Compare this recording with the performance from the film version available on Spotify. Ask students: why did they change so much in the song in the film?

Chita Rivera (b. 1933) is an accomplished and versatile actor, singer, and dancer. She premiered leading roles in West Side Story, Chicago,and Kiss of the Spider Woman. A star of the stage and screen, she has won three Tony awards and in 2002 was a recipient of the Kennedy Center honors. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. For the lyrics please consult this online source:

https://www.westsidestory.com/america

Poster for the Broadway Musical West Side Story.

The musical West Side Story was a collaboration between Leonard Bernstein (composer), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins (choreographer/director), and Arthur Laurents (author). Robbins came up with the idea of re-setting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a Puerto Rican ghetto in New York City. Premiering on Broadway in 1957 and adapted into a movie in 1961, West Side Story became extremely popular in the United States and abroad.

A significant feature of this song, besides the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, is the driving rhythm of alternating triple and double meters. This technique, called hemiola, is characteristic of Latin American music.

Compare this song to:

"Deportees" (this unit)

"The Argentines, the Portuguese, and the Greeks" (Unit 6)

Write a letter home to San Juan, telling your family about what life is like in the United States and advising them whether to come, too.

Debate whether Puerto Rico should be admitted as the 51st state.