Bernstein: West Side Story: ‘America’ (original cast)
It’s a song of contrasts:
Rosalia: hundreds of flowers in full bloom
Anita: hundreds of people in each room
Rosalia: I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan
Anita: if there’s a road you can drive on
Rosalia: I’ll give them new washing machine
Anita: what have they got there to keep clean?
These are all domestic concerns: looking good when you get home, the advancements you could bring back, contrasted with Anita’s cynical commentary on the reality of the scene.
When this was filmed in 1961, the song was altered: it was no longer a song sung by women, but sung by the women and their boyfriends and there’s a definite change in the tone. Now it’s the girls who are the advocates for the new country and the boys who long for the security and prestige they had at home.
Anita: Buying on credit is so nice
Bernardo: One look at us and they charge twice
Anita: Lots of new housing with more space
Bernardo: Lots of doors slamming in our face
Girls: Life is all right in America
Boys: If you’re all white in America
For the first time we have discrimination, intolerance, racism, and other social problems becoming factors in this song – it’s no longer about flowers and showing off your prosperity. It’s an interesting contrast when you consider that most Hollywood musicals of toned what had been on the Broadway stage. In this case, there’s a heightened antagonism.
At the end of both songs, however, it’s Anita who has the last word, and you know that it’s her optimism that will carry the feeling:
Bernardo: I think I go back to San Juan
Anita: I know a boat you can get on
Bernardo: Everyone there will give big cheer
Anita: Everyone there will have moved here.