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.
The song was covered by the cast of Glee in the fifth episode of the third season of the show. A high-school production of West Side Story is a significant storyline in the first five episodes of the third season, though the movie version of the song is performed in it rather than the theatrical one, with girls and boys participating, and the additional modification of having the Jets sing the two interjections "Long as you stay on your own side" and "Free to wait tables and shine shoes" sung in the movie by the Sharks.