I watched Robert Wise’s 1961 version a couple of years ago, during my quest to see the 25 musicals deemed essential by the American Film Institute. The film placed at #2 on that list, but I wasn’t a fan. I did, however, love Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Anita, easily the highlight of that film.
I’ll have more to say in coming weeks about how Spielberg’s version tops the original in every way, but today I’m just focusing on my favorite musical moment.
Not surprisingly, it features Anita, though now played by the amazing Ariana DeBose. DeBose had huge shoes to fill and she was more than up to the challenge, turning in the film’s most electrifying and emotional performance.
‘America’ was the standout scene in the original film, and it also has that distinction in the new one. Mostly that is due to the centering of Anita, but it’s also one of the musical’s catchiest tunes, and it features some spectacular dancing in the streets of New York.
As Anita spars with beau Bernardo about the merits of relocating from Puerto Rico to New York City, DeBose’s swirling yellow dress underscores the optimism of her character, while the blood-red petticoats foreshadow the painful developments to come.
It took Spielberg, one of the most visually inventive directors, 50 years to try his hand at a musical. This scene was worth the wait.
[Here’s a quick clip about the ‘America’ sequence; the song is included below]
You lovely island
Island of tropical breezes
Always the pineapples growing
Always the coffee blossoms blowing
And the money owing
And the babies crying
And the people trying
I like the island Manhattan
Smoke on your pipe and put that in!
I like to be in America
Okay by me in America
Everything free in America
For a small fee in America
Buying on credit is so nice
One look at us and they charge twice
I have my own washing machine
What do you have though to keep clean?
Skyscrapers bloom in America
Cadillacs zoom in America
Industry boom in America
Twelve in a room in America
Lots of new housing with more space
Lots of doors slamming in our face
I’ll get a terrace apartment
Better get rid of your accent
Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is all right in America
If you’re all white in America
La la la la la la, America
La la la la la la, America
Here you are free and you have pride
Long as you stay on your own side
Free to do anything you choose
Free to wait tables and shine shoes
Everywhere grime in America
Organized crime in America
Terrible time in America
You forget I’m in America
I think I’ll go back to San Juan
I know a boat you can get on (Bye Bye!)
Everyone there will give big cheer!
Everyone there will have moved here