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6th February 2022

West Side Story’s primary problem lies in its repeatedly rewritten signature song

Theatre Editor Jay Darcy explores the problems of West Side Story through its signature song, ‘America’
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West Side Story’s primary problem lies in its repeatedly rewritten signature song
Photo: Ariana Debose in West Side Story (2021) by Harelinmadness @ Wikimedia.

West Side Story, though not one of my favourite musicals, contains one of my favourite musical theatre songs: ‘America’ – its signature song.

West Side Story offers a pretty problematic portrayal of Puerto Ricans, though it was progressive – radical, even – for its time. The radical nature of the musical is not surprising when you realise that it was created by a group of gay, Jewish men. That said, the musical’s portrayal of women and Latinos makes it alarmingly clear that it is the work of White men.

Whilst ‘America’, with its passionate singing and fiery dancing, is a remarkable musical number, the song’s lyrics are quite concerning. The lyrics were written by Stephen Sondheim – who died recently – and it pains me to criticise the King of musical theatre, but as the grandchild of people who lived under colonial rule, this song irks me.

Interestingly, each adaptation of West Side Story has a different version of ‘America’ – each an improvement on the last, reflecting a change in the times. Yet, even the most recent version of the song is flawed. It also begs the question – if you keep having to adapt the musical (and this song, in particular) to make it appropriate for the times, is it worth remaking it at all?

The only stage version I’ve seen of West Side Story is the Royal Exchange Theatre’s non-replica production. The RX is known for its racially diverse (if not even colour-blind) casting, which is great for most pieces of theatre – but not when the whole point of the story is racism. If race is intrinsic to the story, de-racialising the characters makes little sense. West Side Story, a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet that replaces the two feuding families with two rival gangs (one White-Irish, the other Puerto Rican), relies on race/ism to tell its story, as problematic as that story might be. If even the progressive RX cannot save this musical, can anything?

Each version of ‘America’ is sang primarily by Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks – and the most important female character after Maria. I love this about West Side Story: its signature song is not sang by one of its two leads.

Anita is your quintessential, feisty Latina – some might argue that her characterisation, in itself, is stereotypical and reductive – and this number brings her zealous personality to a boil.

The stage version of ‘America’ begins with Rosalia, a minor character, singing about how much she loves the “lovely island” of Puerto Rico. Anita then chimes in, replacing the word “lovely” with “ugly”. The song is an all-female number, in which Rosalia alone states things she loves about Puerto Rico – only for Anita and the other women to point the flaws in the “positives”. The song, essentially, deprecates Puerto Rico and shines a light on the positive qualities of American life.

The irony of this supposedly pro-American number, however, is its vibrantly Hispanic music style – with Latin percussion, complex rhythm and Spanish guitar. The women appear to be unashamedly Puerto Rican, with their thick accents and Latin dancing, yet they thrash the island – ganging up on poor Rosalia, who comes across as naive and pathetic.

In the 1961 film version, Anita is played by the legendary Rita Moreno. For those of you unfamiliar with Moreno, she is one of a few performers to have won the four major annual American entertainment awards: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. She is also one of 24 people who have achieved the “Triple Crown of Acting”, with individual competitive Academy, Emmy and Tony awards for acting. Moreno and Helen Hayes are the only two people who have achieved both distinctions. Moreno has also received various lifetime achievement awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (America’s highest civilian honour), a Kennedy Center Honor (for her contribution to American culture through the performing arts), and the Peabody Career Achievement Award.

So, in summary, Moreno is nothing short of a living legend – and to top it all off, she hails from Puerto Rico. Whilst the 1961 film version of West Side Story starred several notable stars (including the late Natalie Wood in brownface), Moreno is probably the star who people most associate with the film. In fact, she even stars in the 2021 film adaptation, but more on that later.

In the 1961 film version, ‘America’ is no longer Rosalia vs. Anita and the other girls. Instead, it’s a male vs. female sing/dance competition, in which the girls (lead by Anita) sing in favour of the USA, whilst the boys (lead by Bernardo, played by George Chakiris – yes, in brownface) reply with corresponding criticisms of America and American ethnic prejudice, especially against Puerto Ricans. For instance, when the girls declare that “Life is alright in America”, the boys respond with, “If you’re all White in America”.

It works much better having a group for each side of the argument, as opposed to all of the girls ganging up on Rosalia. Whilst the musical offers shallow stereotypes of Puerto Ricans, this number successfully shows that Puerto Ricans are not a monolith.

The revised lyrics are a direct challenge to the original version of the song, which trashes Puerto Rico in favour of mainland America. This version is a sequel, of sorts, breaking apart the American dream: America is not so dreamy for Latinos – even those from Puerto Rico, which is literally part of the USA, as the song reminds us: ‘Nobody knows in America, Puerto Rico is in America!’

Whilst the film version offers some new lyrics, it also successfully reworks some of the original ones. For instance, the original sees Rosalia sing about buying a washing machine in Puerto Rico, only for Anita to ask her what Puerto Ricans have to keep clean, whilst the new version sees Rosalia sing about having a washing machine in America, prompting the boys to ask her what she has in America to keep clean. The boys’ argument throughout the song is, essentially: the positives of America don’t apply to Puerto Ricans.

I like that the song becomes less about Puerto Rico and more about America (the title of the song); it also becomes less about Puerto Rico (the place) and more about Puerto Ricans (the people) – in America. The song is, in a way, a reversal of the original.

Noticeably, whilst the original song sees Anita and the girls successfully shut down Rosalia each time she states something positive about Puerto Rico, the film version sees the girls posses style and sass but not so much substance. When the boys tear into America, the girls’ responses lack gravitas. For example, when the boys sing “Everywhere grime in America/organized crime in America/terrible time in America,” Anita sassily reminds them, “You forget I’m in America” – a fantastic lyric, yes, but also facetious.

Indeed, this version of the song is a huge improvement on the original. Yet, Anita’s disparagement of Puerto Rico still frustrates me. She begins the song with ‘Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion – let it sink back in the ocean’. Latinos are a proud people; no self-respecting Puerto Rican would ever disparage her homeland in such a way. Sure, all communities have the odd self-hating member, but West Side Story‘s decision to portray half of its Latin characters as self-hating and internally racist is troubling – especially when they’re facing racism at the hands of the Jets. It’s also just plain wrong.

I had been wondering what the 2021 film adaptation – released 40 years after the original film, though an adaptation of the stage musical rather than a remake of the original film – would do with ‘America’. As I kept hearing, Spielberg and his team had worked hard to correct the flaws of the musical, attempting to give Latinos an active voice in the most famous piece of theatre about Latinos. For starters, instead of blacking up White actors, Spielberg actually cast Latinos. Radical!

The 2021 version of ‘America’ is a hybrid of both the stage and 1961 film versions. It is sang by Anita, Rosalia, Bernardo, and Luz.

Anita is played by Ariana DeBose, an Afro-Latina. The decision to make Anita Black is perhaps a response to the 1961 film, much like the 1961 film version of ‘America’ can be considered a response to the stage version of the song. Moreno, a light-skinned Latina, was famously asked to brownface as Anita. She declined – though she recently faced criticism because her refusal to wear dark make-up appeared to not necessarily be because she took issue with brownface but rather because she did not want to look dark. This is not a lone incident for Moreno, who recently shut down criticism of the casting controversy in Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights – though for that she apologised.

As a brown man, I know how big an issue colourism is in our communities – largely a result of colonialism. The 2021 film version actually sees Anita call out light-skinned Latinos for their colourism, though she says this in Spanish, and the film has no subtitles, so this will be lost on most viewers (a downside to the bold decision to not have subtitles). Interestingly, other than Anita, the cast is pretty light (just like In The Heights), but I digress… Having a Black actress play Anita could very well be an attempt to correct the sin of the original film: brownface.

The song’s first verse is a mix between Rosalia and Anita’s first verses in the original stage version of the song. However, it is sang only by Anita, like in the original film version. The first half of the verse sees her call Puerto Rico a “lovely” island with “pineapples growing” and “coffee blossom blowing” – lines originally sang by Rosalia. The second half starts off the same as it did in the original two versions, with Anita lamenting that Puerto Rico is a land with “money owing” and “babies crying” – but instead of “bullets flying”, she sings about “people trying”. The song adds humanity and heart to Puerto Rico; this Anita does not see it as a land of horror but rather a land of hardship.

With its altered lyrics, the 2021 version of the song is the best version, and the movie as a whole is a massive improvement on its predecessors. It’s impossible to fix the many flaws of West Side Story, but Spielberg successfully addresses many of its sins and issues. I do wonder, though, why anybody thought Spielberg was the right person to direct this movie. As a Jewish man – like the creators of the stage musical – he obviously understands racism and oppression, but surely it would have been better to finally allow actual Latinos to tell this story. However, I appreciate Spielberg involving Latinos in the creative process; it’s a step in the right direction. West Side Story gets better with each adaptation, so if (God-forbid) they make another film, hopefully it will be third time lucky.

There is a huge problem that the 2021 film has failed to address, though – an elephant in the room for Puerto Ricans: Puerto Rico, whilst a part of the United States, is not a state; it’s a colony. Heck, its citizens have to abide by American laws but don’t even get a say in who makes those laws: whilst they can vote in Presidential elections, their votes don’t count, and they have no Senators or Representatives in Congress.

So, why is this a problem for the film? Well, ‘America’ goes into detail about the many problems in Puerto Rico – problems which forced the Sharks to flee their homeland – but never once does any version of West Side Story address the cause of these problems: America – the title of the damn song.

In the way that Indians migrated to the UK, the country that colonised theirs, lots of Puerto Ricans have moved to mainland USA (the land of their colonisers) for a better life. It seems only fair, doesn’t it, that “colonised people” get to live in the place that drained their homeland of its resources?

So, whilst the 2021 film version of ‘America’ is an improvement, it belongs to a movie which fails to consider why Puerto Rico is rife with so many problems – the reason they migrated to the USA, the country responsible for many of these problems.

West Side Story falls victim to the illusion of the American dream – for even liberal Americans (many of whom are lining up to watch this film and will no doubt shower it with praise) truly believe that the USA is the greatest country in the world.

Sure, life is alright in America – if you’re all White in America.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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