America (West Side Story song)
27 second sample from the original Broadway casting of "West Side Story".
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In the original stage version of the musical, Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo (the leader of the Sharks) and the musical's most important female character besides Maria, literally sings the praises of the United States of America, while a fellow Puerto Rican immigrant, Rosalia, sings in favor of Puerto Rico. This version of the song arguably provides an unfavorable caricature of the island, while only highlighting positive qualities of the United States ("I'll drive a Buick through San Juan", "if there's a road you can drive on"). The underlying irony to this supposedly pro-American number, however, is in its vibrantly Hispanic musical style, with Latin percussion, complex cross-rhythms, and Spanish Guitar.
In the 1961 film version of the musical, Anita (played by Rita Moreno but dubbed by Betty Wand) still sings in favor of the United States, while Bernardo responds to her praises with corresponding criticisms satirizing latent racism in American society, especially towards Puerto Ricans ("Life is all right in America", "If you're all white in America"). Most of the song's original disparaging elements towards Puerto Rico were removed.
From a technical standpoint, the alternating of 3/4 (three quarter notes) with 6/8 (two groups of three eighth-notes), while the value of the eight-note remains constant, is a distinctive characteristic of the song. This rhythm has been called both a hemiola and a habanera, although it is not really either. The "two" and "three" bars alternate, but they are not superposed, as in a hemiola. The alternating two and three is similar to the aria "Habanera" from Carmen, but "America" lacks the distinctive characteristic underlying rhythm of the habanera form. The composer's tempo instruction is "Tempo di Huapango".
An instrumental version, with the signature rhythm reduced to a uniform 4/4, was released in 1963 on Volume 2 (Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass album).
In 1968, Keith Emerson, then in The Nice, covered this song as their second single. This version featured the main theme playing against a straight 4/4 beat, also including pieces of Dvořák's New World Symphony, then changing in the middle to 6/8 for improvised guitar and organ solos. Emerson later folded the melody into a great many of his jams including the 14-minute "Finale (Medley)" on the 1993 Emerson, Lake & Palmer release Live at the Royal Albert Hall which also featured musical themes from "Blue Rondo à la Turk", a jazz standard composed by Dave Brubeck. The band Metallica also incorporated a few bars from the song in the opening riff from their song, "Don't Tread on Me." The "America" melody again featured prominently in a 1986 jam with Paul Shaffer on Late Night with David Letterman.
Usage in popular culture
In 2011, the song was covered by the cast of musical comedy TV series Glee in the fifth episode of the third season, "The First Time" (aired on November 8), with character Santana Lopez (portrayed by Naya Rivera) on the lead.
In 2013, the song was used in adverts for Admiral Insurance though with different lyrics.
Conservative talk radio host Howie Carr plays a snippet of the song, "Everything free in America!" when the subject of welfare for illegal aliens comes up.