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Rita Moreno discusses changed lyric in "America"
Last Edit: ilw 09:18 pm EDT 06/07/21
Posted by: ilw 09:11 pm EDT 06/07/21

The following is what is written on the NPR website re: today's interview of Rita Moreno on NPR's Fresh Air program:

Actor Rita Moreno never had an on-screen, Latina role model as a child. "There was no such thing then," she says. "Certainly not for little Puerto Rican girls like me."

That changed when Moreno, who moved with her mother to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico in 1936 and spent years working as a contract player for MGM, landed her breakout role as Anita in the 1961 film West Side Story.

"What was important about Anita to me — and still is — is that Anita, believe it or not, was the only part I ever remember where I represented Hispanics in a dignified and positive way," she says. "It represented a lot of breakthroughs for young actors of Hispanic origin."

But Moreno nearly didn't take the part. Just before she signed the West Side Story contract, she remembered a troubling verse in the song "America" in which she'd have to sing: "Puerto Rico. You ugly island, island of tropic diseases."

"And it suddenly occurred to me, Oh my God, I can't sing that! ... I can't do this to my people," she says.

Moreno says she was "this close" to turning the role down before Stephen Sondheim, at the request of a producer, changed the lyric to: "Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let it sink back in the ocean."

"And that's how Stephen Sondheim saved me from turning down this magnificent role," she says.

If you listen to the audio, she actually says the lyric was changed "at someone's behest. I'm just guessing it was Robert Wise or maybe one of the producers." I had always assumed the lyric was changed from the stage version as part of the shortening of the verse, in conjunction with the reconception of the song to include the men. Thus, there was no longer a need to have the contrasting "lovely island/ugly island." Anyone know the true story?
Link NPR Fresh Air: Rita Moreno
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