1. The most overtly Hispanic number is the (rather ironically titled) song "America," which describes the Puerto Rican adaptation to American life. The conflation of the Hispanic and exotic with the feminine is notable in this number. One could convincingly argue that the Puerto Ricans are given no real "voice" within the context of the musical; "America" is the Sharks’ only dance number or song independent of the Jets. The number seems to correct this omission, and yet the stage version features only the Shark women. The allure of the Spanish skirt dancing on which this number capitalizes gives it a choreorgraphic
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    raison d’etre. On another level, though, the worldliness and maturity of the women, evinced both by musical subtlety and clever lyrics, sets them apart from the "kids" who seem to populate the story. The film version adds men, making it more colorful and more filled with sexual tension; the various ways that female characters negotiate the traditions of ‘home’ and the realities of ‘here’ in the stage production are rendered instead as a conflict between men as upholders of traditional culture and women all seeming equally eager to cast aside the old ways and assimilate into the melting pot. In Robbins’ original notes to composer and lyricist, he suggests that the number should either be an argument between Anita and Rosalia or one between Anita and her lover, Sharks leader Bernardo. At the bottom of the page, Robbins scribbles a further instruction that perhaps the male/female dichotomy is the best. For whatever reasons this was changed in the original version, it seems that perhaps Robbins was able to reinstate his original intention within the film version (which he co-directed with Robert Wise).

  2. "America" is a kind of second-generation "I Am Easily Assimilated," treating the same subject matter in a way not dissimilar to its Candide predecessor. Here Bernstein keeps some of the more vital aspects of the Hispanic, and seems to treat it more "seriously," at least to the extent that it is the most authentically Hispanic piece in the score. The number is an amalgam of two Latin American traditions: it combines the indigenous Mexican form, the huapango with the Puerto Rican genre of the seis. The huapango was more than a dance for two people or groups of pairs; the term was also used to describe a genre: a type of dance party popular in South America. The essence of the huapango is its fast tempo and complex cross-rhythms: one instrument plays in 2/4, another 3/4, and a third 6/8.59 This is precisely what Bernstein presents in the first bars of this number, adding as a tempo indication "Tempo di ‘Seis.’" The seis was yet another form of Puerto Rican origin, although it also cropped up in Venezuela and Columbia. Taking its name from the guitar ("Six string") which accompanies it, the seis is an accompanied vocal piece in several stanzas of varying numbers of 6- or 8-syllable lines. The binary structure includes brief instrumental interludes performed usually by a guitar in strict V-I harmony with percussion accompaniment, followed by often unaccompanied, unmeasured text delivery.60 The seis was not only one of the most popular of Puerto Rican forms, but also the most indebted to its Spanish heritage. Although there are no unaccompanied sections to Bernstein’s seis, he does borrow a technique from the subcategory of the seis de bomba (a bomba being a verbal blow aimed at one of the singer’s audience members). Rosalia’s nostalgic reminiscences of her homeland are countered with Anita’s bombas. Anita does not even allow Rosalia to finish her 16-bar vocal, before jumping in two measures early with a sarcastic parody of Rosalia’s sincere outpouring (Bernstein marks Anita’s phrase "mockingly"). Anita then extends her own reportage of life in Puerto Rico with 4 extra bars of punctuated outcries (Bernstein instructs them to be performed "rhythmically") about the downside of life in the old country. Although the vocal line is certainly set in notated rhythm, the "unmeasured" aspect of this slow prelude does resemble the spirit, if not the letter, of the seis. Bernstein has also scored the piece fairly authentically: Spanish guitar, claves and guiro (the latter two essential to Latin American music, both in its authentic form and its North American counterparts). Even the piano/vocal score indicates the use of claves and guiro for the rhythmic "vamp" which precedes this number proper, an unusual indication considering that these instruments would likely not be part of the rehearsal pianist’s percussion arsenal.61

  3. The purpose of "America" is clearly to provide an opportunity for a dance number, and, although ostensibly addressing cultural problems, it would be ridiculous to imagine that it attempts to address social ills any more than "I Am Easily Assimilated" is a commentary on the Diaspora. However, the big comic number in this recurringly serious musical is "Officer Krupke," and it remains interesting that the cleverness of the lyric, the cynicism yet worldliness and insight presented in the song is the domain of the male, the white gang, not the Puerto Rican females. It also stops the show, long after we have forgotten the excitement of Anita’s skirt-swirling dance display in "America."

  4. The Dance at the Gym, another ripe site of Latin American influence, is even more intriguing, in that it performs its dramatic and emotional function without the aid of the ubiquitous Broadway lyric. Here we see Bernstein and Robbins create a framing device within which the mystical meeting of the two lovers takes place. Although the Dance scene begins in the "Puerto Rican" locale of the bridal shop, the musical segue (both in the stage version, and simulated through cinematic effects in the film version) takes us immediately into the "white" jazz world of the dance hall. From here on we see layers in which one Hispanically tinged section gives way to one which is even more so; the emotions of the characters and their conflict becomes more intense as they become more Hispanic. The "Promenade" (marked in a Tempo di Paso Doble) opens with a fanfare which seems clearly to mock the pompous attitude of the Master of Ceremonies, a character named (appropriately) Glad Hand. The heavy, repetitive, monotonous nature of this vamp-like interlude (Bernstein has even marked it "pesante") seems to be almost "pseudo-Hispanic." It ends with the standard "Cha Cha Cha" rhythm on the tonic note. Robbed of the rhythmic vitality and color of Latin jazz and Hispanic pop music, the drudgery of this section is clear both from the dull instrumentation and the plodding steps of the youths. It is Latin music as their parents might listen (or dance) to it. The decision to buck authority leads the two gangs suddenly into the "Mambo" section, and here we find the most vital and, in many ways, most Hispanic sections of the score. The instrumentation (bongos, cowbells, trumpets) takes its inspiration from the Latin jazz band. The interpolated cries of "Mambo!" by the two gangs are a direct descendant of the flamenco tradition in which dancers are urged on by their enthusiastic onlookers. A "Cuadro Flamenco" is a kind of dance party in which groups form a semicircle and take turns performing as soloists.62 In fact, this is exactly what Robbins’s dancers do; each gang forms a semi-circle around it’s own dance performers who try to outdo the other "team." Certainly the average amateur dance enthusiast would not be able to execute Robbins’s choreography, but the dance moves are based on conventions of Latin social dancing. Although the predominantly minor mode of the section has resonances in the "Spanish idiom" scale, the Hispanic is most clearly embodied here through the complex rhythm of the mambo.

    mambo facts

  5. When we reach the moment of the deepest, though also restrained, emotion, the Cha-Cha serves to represent the awakening feelings in the couple. Although not by nature a refined dance, the Cha-Cha here is stylized to such an extent that it has almost a "minuet" feel in this context. The spare orchestration, the periodic phrase structure; even a binary form with open and closed cadence points, is mirrored in the courtly dance style adopted by the young lovers. The tune, of course, we will hear only minutes later as "Maria." The dream-like world of the Cha-Cha is soon impinged upon by the steadily increasing tempo and volume of the Paso Doble, the outside world. Once we hear the sound of Glad Hand’s whistle, we are instantly brought back into the everyday world. All Hispanic influence is gone, and we suddenly hear a very laid-back, cool "Jump." mambo danceClearly, the world of the Hispanic represents not just the passion of the dance contest, but the otherworldliness of the love relationship. As Tony re-enters the dream-like state of the initial meeting (and as the walls of the gym literally fly out of the scene), we hear the melody of the Cha-Cha, but now with the rhythmic underpinnings of the seis—the same type that underlies "America." In fact, the song "Maria," always referred to as a Cha-Cha, is not one at all, but a seis. The freely rhythmic opening section (even marked "slowly and freely" in the score) follows the same procedure that we later hear in "America"; and the accompaniment to "Maria" is identical (although the scoring is completely different): dotted "habanera" rhythm in the bass, combination of duple and triple meters in the melody and inner voices. At the same time, like "I Am Easily Assimilated," the song adheres to a fairly standard song form (with the exception that the orchestra takes over some of the inner repetitions from the singer). The reason we don’t hear this song as overtly Hispanic is mostly due to the scoring; the exotic percussion instrumentation and guitar of "America" are missing here; instead we get lush, soaring string sound. The whole combination of elements beautifully reflects the way in which Maria and her Hispanic world have infiltrated the predominantly "white" milieu into which Tony fits.

  6. Although interest in West Side Story has remained high since the film version catapulted it to worldwide attention in the early 1960s, the Latin American musical and cultural craze of the late 1990s seems to have added some luster to West Side Story’s legacy. A recent CD compilation, entitled "The Songs of West Side Story," features artists as diverse as Little Richard and the late Tejana singer Selena, each rendering a song in a different style. Emphasis here is not so much on the Hispanic aspects (with the exception of Selena’s "A Boy Like That") as on integrating the original score with the greatest variety of current popular music styles. In a similar vein, the GAP clothing company launched a print and television ad campaign in the spring of 2000, featuring versions of "America," "Cool," and "Mambo." The ads hinge less on the cultural signs of the Hispanic as on the audience’s immediate acceptance of these particular dance scenes as embodying 1950s zeitgeist.

  7. The advertisements at no point make any explicit reference to West Side Story. Even for the uninitiated viewer, the music and dance are presumably sufficient to conjure 1950s "cool." Even the large print advertisements need no further link to the original; the dance gesture of a crouched jump, accompanied by straight-down arms and finger snapping, is enough to identify the allusion. Robbins’s original choreography is simulated in these truncated dance scenes, along with more modern head-tossing gestures that seem to have been borrowed from a later time period. The music is similarly edited to render the most distinct musical themes within the time constraints of a television commercial.

  8. One of the most interesting aspects of the ads is how closely they correspond to the film as opposed to the stage musical. The reference in the print ad is bolstered by the inclusion of a dead ringer for film principal Richard Beymer (Pictured with Natalie Wood). The lighting of scenes, as well as the camera angles, simulate the analogous scenes in the film West Side Story. The ending to the number "Cool" provides a perfect example. In a departure from the stage musical, this relocated number in the film features the character

    View the "Cool" GAP ad

    Ice looking at the tenement neighbors who represent the censorious adult world. The same gesture and camera angle are used in the GAP ad to end the commercial spot. Whom, in the year 2000, does Ice address? The consumers of a primarily conservative and populist clothing line which the ad attempts to sell? In truth, the similarity of the "Cool," "Mambo," and "America" ads to one another fix them in a generic 1950s culture (filtered through the Hollywood musical film genre) in which gesture, dance, and music have lost much of their original meaning and have become iconic in the largest sense.


  9. Although Candide failed for a number of different reasons, one thing which prevented it from being Bernstein’s "Great American Opera" was that in many ways it was not American enough: the parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan, European operetta, and a number of other styles detracted from anything that seemed truly indigenous. Candide was American in its eclecticism and its worldly, cynical, yet hip world view, but not in its overall sound. (One problem was the locale, or plethora of locales in Candide; West Side Story stays very firmly in one, uniformly American, locale). Everyone could "understand it," as Bernstein had hoped, but not everyone could relate to it. The expansiveness, those open Copland-esque chords, the pioneering spirit of "Make Our Garden Grow" comes too late. The "too bitchy, too vulgar" tone which put Bernstein off the original concept of East Side Story was also what robbed Candide of its earnestness too early in the piece. Surely, "earnestness" would seem a foremost requirement in the creation of a Great American musical identity. With West Side Story, the eclecticism is just as pervasive, and the exoticism just as striking, but the absorption and dovetailing of these features into each other allows that ethnicity to seem less "quoted"—it sounds American while still allowing for "difference" between the warring factions. And no doubt, the reason the Hispanic works so well in this context is because it can represent unity and disunity at once. This effect could only be achieved if the Hispanic were part of a larger body of repertoires, of in fact all repertoires within the American musical mainstream. In effect, the Hispanicism in all aspects of the work function like an "accent;" the musical and verbal style does not represent the "real language" of Puerto Ricans, just as their lives are not portrayed accurately in other ways in this piece. This results in two things: the "difference" of the Hispanic is less threatening to the audience, and it is more easily disguised within the other sources and styles which inform the work. In Benjamin Britten’s opera Paul Bunyan, the use of a solo folk-song-style singer with guitar to narrate past events is a logical and authentic way of presenting the American legend it attempts to portray. The acoustic guitar is not the sole domain of the American folk artist, nor is the ballad style a foreign one to the composer’s culture; and yet this whole number sticks out like of the rest of the work and seems strained and somewhat unnatural. Even though that is an "ethnic" opera for Britten, there seems something too literal and realistic about that representation of "Americanness" which prevents that number from coming across to an audience. In the same way, having enlisted real Puerto Rican music, language, or culture would have seemed just as "obvious" and forced in West Side Story.

  10. Although the Hispanicism of West Side Story grew out of varied sources, it served in its own way to perpetuate a style that was, by the late 1950s, starting to decline. Shortly after the release of the film version, an album called "Kenton’s West Side Story" appeared on the Columbia label. Kenton, one of the big band leaders who had introduced the Latin style long before Bernstein, recorded an entire album of jazz reworkings of the songs, including the Prologue. Kenton’s nouveau-West Side included the most obvious Spanish numbers, "America" and "Dance at the Gym." Strangely enough, the remake of "America" was in some ways more authentic than Bernstein’s original, a kind of second generation of the very anglicized Latin music that Kenton had originally promoted. In a similar vein, Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches, which were really two sketches augmented by a third movement for publication in the 1970s, sounds more like Bernstein’s score than Copland’s earlier dabbling in this style. Perhaps both recognized in the composer’s creation something which was more than just the "Latin tinge," something more American.

  11. But there are other, more subtle resonances behind the adoption of the Hispanic. Take these two accounts, from the late 1950s:

    Gilbert Chase on Copland’s music:

    [Copland’s Salón] has caught a bit of color and movement that strikes like a flash of lightning through the drab cerebralism of academic modernism.63

    and on the music of Spanish composer Mompou:

    Mompou himself has defined his aesthetic ideal as tending toward an intimate type of musical expression, the cultivation of music in a state of purity, motivated by a purposeful reaction against the "cerebralism" dominant in our epoch. He reacts against the "music of the laboratory," seeking a true form of expression in a lyrical feeling enriched by the musical experience of the past.64

    Aaron Copland:

    My turn to a simpler style in El Salón and other pieces that followed puzzled some of my colleagues. Roger Sessions did not approve of my move to a "popular" style, nor did Arthur Berger. After El Salón, I occasionally had the strange sensation of being divided in half—the austere, intellectual modernist on one side; the accessible, popular composer on the other.65

    Purity, truth, cerebralism? It seems that the dichotomy drawn between "intellectual" modernism and "true" (indeed "pure") feeling at mid-century finds an interesting outgrowth in the Hispanic. The popularity of the "Spanish idiom" was certainly felt in the concert hall, but its representative pieces would hardly have made it into the canon of great masterworks. Nor would its styles have been taught in composition classes. Copland’s reception as a composer would have been quite different had he eschewed the "popular" in his oeuvre. We can see how Bernstein has incorporated the Hispanic elements, and yet West Side Story has not gone down in history as "that Spanish musical." Even Joseph Swain, in his survey of the greatest of Broadway musicals, assigns West Side Story to the chapter "Tragedy as Musical" instead of "Ethnic Musical" (the chapter given to Fiddler on the Roof).66 It seems that, in many ways, the dissonance of the score, the violence of the story, and the economy of the spoken dialogue and dance numbers mitigate against the languid, emotional qualities which were deemed quintessentially Hispanic. The very quick cutting from Hispanic to non-Hispanic (take the segue from "America" to "Cool," and the close proximity of the subsections of Dance at the Gym) keeps the Hispanic element in its place. It never escapes long enough to take over the score, and yet many of its rhythmic and harmonic aspects (the tritone as a melodic interval is, scholars have noted, a frequent feature of "Spanish idiom" music) allow a sense of continuity throughout the work. The universal appeal of this Hispanic "Americanism" is perhaps best explained by Chávez, himself deeply interested in this issue. "The feeling of universality is not new in history. Localism also has existed always, but with the limitations of fear, or poverty of spirit. For this reason, it has been an error to seek the originality of American art by way of nationalism inspired in localisms and limitations. No. The American is as universal as the rest."67

    Elizabeth A. Wells

    Eastman School of Music

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    59. Pan American Union, Music of Latin America (Washington: General Secretariat of the Organization of American States, 1963), 13.

    60. Jorg Duany, "Popular Music in Puerto Rico: Toward an Anthropology of Salsa", Latin American Music Review 5/2 (Fall/Winter 1984), 190.

    61. Very few instrumentation cues are provided in the piano/vocal score, published by Boosey and Hawkes.

    62. Chase, 226.

    63. Chase, 304.

    64. Chase, 320

    65. Copland in Perlis, 245-251.

    66. Joseph P. Swain, The Broadway Musical (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

    67. Carlos Chávez, 1952, quoted in Ann Livermore, A Short History of Spanish Music (London: Duckworth, 1972), 244.


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