Published on July 2, 2016
“America” is a song from the musical West Side Story. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics and Leonard Bernstein composed the music.
In the original stage version, Anita – the most important female character after Maria and the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks – praises America while a fellow Puerto Rican immigrant, Rosalia, supports Puerto Rico. This version of the song deprecates the island and highlights the positive qualities of American life (“I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/If there’s a road you can drive on”). The irony of this supposedly pro-American number, however, is its vibrantly Hispanic musical style, with Latin percussion, complex cross-rhythm and Spanish guitar.
In the 1961 film version, Anita, played by Rita Moreno, still sings in favor of the United States while Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, replies with corresponding criticisms of America and American anti-immigrant prejudice, especially against Puerto Ricans (“Life is all right in America/If you’re all white in America”). Some of the original song’s disparagement was removed.
In 2004, this version finished at No. 35 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.