fri 14/06/2024

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 4 - 'America' | reviews, news & interviews

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 4 - 'America'

Sondheim at 90 Songs: 4 - 'America'

Brilliant lyrics from the young composer offer a definitive take on migration

Lyrical beauty: Stephen Sondheim in the recording studio

Ever since I heard the quintessential prog rock group The Nice do a psychedelic instrumental version of “America” in 1968, I have loved this song. Later on, I was better able to appreciate Sondheim’s lyrics, whose satirical sharpness and superb inventiveness make this the definitive song about migration.

Written for Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story (1957), at a time when Sondheim had never written a Broadway show of his own, it was, lyrically speaking, a fabulous debut. Robert Wise’s 1961 film version, currently available on Netflix, is likewise a great revision of the original. (Steven Spielberg's remake is due for release at the end of the year.) 

The song “America” is performed by the Sharks, a gang whose young members are Puerto Rican Americans. In the original staging, the idealistic Anita — Bernardo’s girlfriend — sings the lines which praise their wonderful life in America, while the more down-to-earth Rosalia highlights the country's prejudice against immigrants. In the film version, the balance is altered because Bernardo is substituted for Rosalia, and so Anita’s enthusiasm for the Land of the Free is challenged by his acerbic criticism of racism and poverty. What I like about this version is that Bernardo seems to get the better of Anita in these call and response passages, while she turns the tables on him in the end.

Sondheim’s lyrics, here and in the similarly delightful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, have a sparkling wit and critical flair that never seem to lose their relevancy. And the rhymes are simply lovely: Rosalia’s “I like the city of San Juan” is matched by Anita’s “I know a boat you can get on”, while her nostalgic memory of the “lovely island”, with “Hundreds of flowers in full bloom” is answered by Anita’s shudder about this “ugly island”, with “Hundreds of people in each room”. The chorus can be equally cutting: “Immigrant goes to America / Many hellos in America / Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America!”

In the film version, Anita’s embrace of the American Dream, “Lots of new housing in America”, is answered by Bernardo’s “Lots of doors slamming in our face”, while the female chorus’s point that “Everything’s free in America—” provokes Bernardo to respond: “For a small fee in America.” “Buying on credit is so nice” is countered with “One look at us and they charge twice”. When the girls sing “Life is all right in America”, the boys realistically reply with “If you’re all-white in America”. But Bernardo’s “Terrible time in America” is finally answered by Anita’s “You forget I’m in America”!

There are many versions of “America” available, but my favourites are just two of the early ones: Chita Rivera as Anita (her voice has a satisfying snarl, she rolls her rs wonderfully, and her singing has great timing) and Marilyn Cooper as Rosalia in the original Broadway cast recording. Likewise, the classic multiple-Oscar-winning film version has Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo, and of course the added pleasures of seeing the singers, with their evident on-set rapport, and the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who also co-directed. Sheer joy.


Sondheim’s lyrics, here and in the similarly delightful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, have a sparkling wit and critical flair that never seem to lose their relevancy

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