The Definitive Song Ranking of the West Side Story Original Broadway Cast Recording
About a month ago I was driving in my car and listening to West Side Story Original Broadway Cast recording. As I was listening on this particular occasion, a few thoughts about these songs began to pop into my head. At first I was going to tweet about them, and then when I started writing down the thoughts, they exploded into the effusive chaos that is now before you, a natural result, I guess, of beginning to write about a work of art that is one of most enduring and important Formative Texts. I do apologize about the lunacy below, but also, please read my definitive rankings of the songs of the West Side Story Original Broadway Cast recording!
The “Anyone Could Have Written It” One
The song that does not particularly distinguish itself in the world of American musical theater
16. “One Hand, One Heart”
“One Hand, One Heart” is a pretty song, but is it great? Does it stand out from a host of Broadway love duets? Does it distinguish itself from a host of sacred art(ish) songs like “Because” or “O Promise Me,” popular at the turn of the century? It’s a song that actively resists harmonization, and I guess we could get metaphorical about a lack of comfortable secondary voicing in a song about becoming unified, but the lyrics are also bland — the reiteration of “even death won’t part us now” isn’t enough to foreshadow with any prophetic voice. Romeo and Juliet get married offstage, and maybe Maria and Tony should have too. (Also, this really IS NOT a discussion of the movie or the stage production, but the “dressmaker dummy parents at our make-believe wedding” conversation is almost unwatchable.)
The Orchestral Ones
The incidental music, which is great, but for my ranking purposes, well, incidental
14. “The Rumble”
13. “Dance at the Gym”
The orchestral numbers are not as important to me as the rest of the songs in West Side Story, so I have just a few words to say about them. The “Prologue” is great, setting up the civil unrest of Romeo and Juliet’s Prologue. It also establishes that central tritone dissonance, the musical motif that will be sustained even to the final notes of the Finale. Unlike in “Maria,” the tritone here doesn’t resolve, so the vibrations of it shake in the air.
“The Rumble” I listen to at most every third time I listen to the CD, but I always stay for the first seven seconds, until the “Don’t push me” line, and I usually stay long enough to hear the first motif. If I stay for one second more, I will end up listening to the whole thing.
“The Dance at the Gym” is the greatest. For Tony and Maria’s first dance: I do not understand how Bernstein writes a dance that feels entirely in spirit like a waltz but is written in four. The Mambo part of the dance is so sexy, too, with all those M7 chords, arpeggiated like the crack of a whip. Delicious.
The “Of Its Time” One
The song that is a period piece
Listening to “Cool,” you can hear all the hubris of midcentury American modernism, the Ozymandian energy of a school of intellectualism that had broken all the forms and the world, a school of artists who conceived of themselves as both the end of civilization and the apex of it. The music of Bach sounds less old-fashioned than Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy “Cool,” maybe because Bach often wrote for hallowed spaces, innately otherworldly, whereas Bernstein is writing for the gritty realism of . . . well, modernity.
And yet . . .
This is that thing where you believe your teacher who tells you Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger are great writers, and then you learn how masculine and broken their worlds are, so worthy of critique, so lacking in universality after all, so you stop believing they’re great, and then you learn and read more, and then you know so deeply in your soul that they are great. You KNOW. You’ve learned what greatness is, rather than having learned what is great. “Cool” is West Side Story’s major argument for the greatness of modern jazz, that twelve-tone row, the timbre of the percussion warmed by fleshly slaps and snaps, the frenzied dance break that even now, seventy years later, sounds as angry and ecstatic as it must have originally.
And yet . . .
If I played “Cool” for one of my high school students, let me tell you, it would not translate.
(And yet . . . The punctuation of those two final notes — three if you count the grace notes — ugh. What genius.)
The “Grade A Musical Theater Writing” Ones
Great songs that would be the best work from another songwriting duo, but are not the best work from Sondheim/Bernstein
11. “Somewhere (Ballet)”
I like “Somewhere” a little less than it deserves. Part of the problem may be the lack of Carol Lawrence — Reri Grist is great, but also, Carol Lawrence is CAROL LAWRENCE. Part of the problem may be Sondheim’s accurate self-critique about squandering the most important note in the phrase (the top of a seventh leap) on the most insignificant word in the phrase — “There’s a place for us.” (Not that I’m here to overcriticize the greatest lyricist America has ever produced: RIP, and, he makes up for it later). Part of the problem, too, may be that it’s barely a full song. Its slightness ceases to matter, however, when framed by Bernstein’s incredible ballet music. Bernstein surrounds the “Somewhere” melody with two musical fantasies, one a gentle Americana scene — basically a Charles Wysocki painting — and the other a frightening vision of shrieking violence, an equally familiar American scene. The melody rises once more out of the mayhem, but without any sense of hope.
10. “Jet Song”
The stupid defiance of youth has never sounded so correct. No one should be able to say the words “Here come the Jets / Like a bat out of hell,” yet 15-year-olds do actually sound that dumb regularly. The joie de vivre of this song is a constant surprise, but again, it’s indicative of youth, that crazy, chaotic, stupid, occasionally evil, and almost always endearing spirit that permeates the kids in my classroom every day. Like the civil unrest scene that opens R&J, the “Jet Song” establishes the lusty violence of disaffected boredom, and, as a bonus, it’s wildly fun to sing. A show-opening banger, if there ever was one.
The Stupendous Ones
Perfect songs, just less perfect than others
9. “I Feel Pretty”
Linking verbs often function as an equivalent or equal sign between subject and complement, as any English teacher might tell you. “I feel pretty” very nearly means “I am pretty,” and that statement of condition is true for the rest of the predicate adjectives in this song — Maria is stunning, charming, entrancing. Her bold confidence is coquettish in a song that’s unabashedly childish, a song that contains somewhere between six and 13,000 long e sounds per stanza. There’s that delightful shift between the adjectival use of pretty — “I feel pretty” — and the adverbial use — “in love with a pretty wonderful boy.” The song itself is a waltz, the natural choice for the tempo of a song which contains the lyric “dancing for joy.” The melody uses the V7 as a springboard into the I chord repeatedly, and you can almost see an athlete midjump every time that major triad gets outlined. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein song in the middle of a midcentury modern jazz musical, yes, and I understand the choice to leave it out of revivals, but I also think the choice to do so misunderstands that this song, which is of a different time and place, is so purposefully. It’s the last burst of innocence before someone cannot be innocent anymore. It’s Maria, like Juliet in Act III, Scene 2, waiting giddily to leap into her lover’s arms.
8. “Gee, Officer Krupke”
If we’re being snide (we’re not), we could put this song into the “Of Its Time” category because this social satire targets modern angst, and whatever our angst is now, it’s not quite the same. But the word choice in “Krupke” delights me — the metric jiggling of psychologically and sociologically (kal-lee and klee), the depraved/deprived joke, that nonsensical rhyming of “bringin’ upke” and “Krupke.” This song is silly, and you are not free to forget it, any more than any of us are ever free to divest from our psychological hand-wringing over the oppressively ridiculous relationship we have to society.
7. “Something’s Coming”
Sometimes I listen to this song and I think to myself, I do not know a better song. (And then I hear the entire rest of the CD, and I know there are better songs.) Tony is the most useless character in West Side Story, but he sings its two best solos, and I almost think if they weren’t both early in Act I, we would feel differently about him. I have no working theory for why this song is so good — surely it cannot be its wall-to-wall prepositional phrase clichés. It cannot be Larry Kert’s performance. I love his voice, but he evades commitment to the song’s key for the first twenty seconds — and occasionally elsewhere. But I also have no working theory for why this is often considered a lesser song from the musical. The update of Romeo’s foreshadowing from Act I of R&J is transformative — Romeo’s foreshadowing is fearsome, while Tony’s is both defiant and hopeful. I don’t know a song that’s more enjoyable to sing. I know few sounds as flatly pleasurable as the expansion of air when Kert sings, “Around the corner, and whistlin’ down the river” (I mean, lay me down on a floating raft and let me soak up the sun). I know the jostling of the mixed meter is much subtler here than it is in “America,” but it’s as essential to the overall effect as it is in that song. I have never once skipped this song when listening to the CD — a statement I can make about only three other songs from this musical. It’s the song I’m most likely to restart as soon as I’ve finished it. It’s a light, airy apéritif before everything that follows, and I want to drink it all day long.
At least according to what I’ve read, Sondheim’s underwriting of “Tonight” is purposeful, a lyric composition strategy to allow the music to shine — a successful strategy. Because Bernstein does not underwrite anything.
One of the things my ninth graders and I talk about when studying R&J is the youthful impetuosity, the energy, of the main characters. Here, the energy that causes the Friar to warn, “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast,” gets translated by Bernstein into a propulsive syncopation that pushes the too-pretty song forward. Despite Sondheim’s self-critique of underwriting, there’s two lyrical moments I love. First, I love when, after multiple repetitions of the word “tonight,” the word “today” bursts forth at the climax of the phrase, a moment so shatteringly gorgeous you can practically see the sun coming out. And speaking of “sun,” my second favorite moment is the choice to pluralize that word, a single letter that expands the romantic possibility beyond the constraints of the universe. With suns and moons all over the place we, too, can glimpse what Maria and Tony envision.
The Transcendent Ones
The ones that are abundantly above all we could ask or think
The better version of “Somewhere” exists in the Finale, when Sondheim’s achingly romantic “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there / Hold my hand and I’ll take you there” becomes heart-breaking. But the transcendence of the Finale comes from the dirge that follows, a dirge similar to the one Bernstein wrote at the end of On the Waterfront, as Marlon Brando, broken and bloody, stumbles his way to Calvary (okay, okay, to a boat). That score (surely one of the five greatest film scores of all time, yes?) resolves with a series of clustered chords (maybe not definitionally cluster chords; my theoretical knowledge is a little shaky here) each followed by a reiterating dissonant pitch. Here, more precisely, Bernstein finishes with three C major chords, each beginning with an appoggiatura — a D that resolves to the E of the C major chord, the appoggiatura sung in the final lines of the song: “somehow, some day, somewhere.” After each of the first two chords, he writes an F sharp pedal point, a hammer drop of a note that clashes as badly as two notes can (F# to C is a tritone, Bernstein’s ever-present motif). So the ending is the C chord, then the F# bass note, the C chord, the F# bass note, and then . . . one more C chord. And despite the uninterrupted lingering of that final triad, you wait, straining for the dissonance to come once more, the harmonically satisfying ending stolen from you by the ghost of that dissonance in your ear. He ENDS WITH THE MOST MAJOR CHORD OF ALL TIME, AND IT IS NOT SATISFYING BECAUSE YOU CANNOT UNHEAR THAT F SHARP.
Leonard Bernstein, man.
(Leonard Bernstein: god.)
I do not know a better ending.
Look, I could talk about this song forever (like I have for every other song here), but also, I could just remind you that when you saw that song title, you began audiating Buh-duh-duh Buh-duh-duh ba da da, because this is the song with the most recognizable rhythm in the world. No one has ever written a song so good, and probably no one ever will again (a ridiculous statement to make, of course, unless you have heard “America” with any musical background, and then, well, you know.)
(One reason I like “America” on the OBC recording is that Anita is flyting with her friend Rosalia, not her boyfriend. Layering Bernardo and Anita’s relationship over their viewpoints comes at the cost of the fun nastiness in the original. I know George Chakiris and Rita Moreno going at it is nearly unbearably sexy, but I think it darkens the argument in a way that slightly betrays the cynicism of the original. Also, oops, wasn’t going to talk about the movie.)
The tritone is an interval most familiar to non-musicians as the interval of emergency sirens. Choral singers know it is perhaps the most difficult interval to sing, the curse of careless alto or tenor voice leading. And it is the interval that gives “Maria,” one of Earth’s greatest songs, its power, its edge, its pungency. The tritone resolves, but Bernstein returns to the top note (the odd one, the raised 7th) three more times in his opening phrase (that unusual note becomes the musical equivalent of a Shakespearean pun, a chord tone used three different ways in six seconds). The hymn-like quality of the song is obscured by that tritone — you hardly notice the plagal cadence underneath. When we actually get to the line about Maria’s name being like a prayer, the plagal cadence is altered — the IV chord is now a minor chord. Near the end of the song Bernstein writes a tiny chant over a chromatic mediant chord progression — churchy sounds, trust me. He turns the uttering of the name “Maria” into a musical caress, a sigh. And, most quixotically of all, we get an entire bridge where we sing nothing but Maria’s name (and I do mean we, because of course WE are singing along. RIGHT?). Tony repeats her name over and over, altering the length and metric placement of each interval resolution so that by the end of the bridge he’s delirious. He sings with the desperation of a man dying in the desert for want of water, like a drowning man surfacing for gasps of air, the kind of desperation that so perfectly expresses the romantic and destructive idealism innate to this story.
The spiky rage of Anita’s wild mourning is expected (perfectly realized by Bernstein and goddess Chita Rivera); Maria’s insistent loyalty to her brother’s murderer is a little less predictable. This is the moment where Maria stops being passive, an exact parallel of Juliet’s character solidification when she asks, “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” Whether or not we agree with her doesn’t matter. All that matters is that, with all the fierceness of decision, Maria proclaims, in the face of Anita’s wrathful lament, “Oh no, Anita, no. It isn’t true.” She references Anita’s poorly placed affection — “It’s true for you, not for me” — and then with a verbal and musical blow (literally! listen to it!), she forces Anita to remember her love — “You were in love, or so you said / You should know better.” While Anita is left nursing her wounds, Maria sings a promise of (probably delusional) fidelity, a beautiful melodic line with yearning leaps of the seventh interval, the same interval used moments earlier in “Somewhere,” and this time, with the significant word on top (“I love him, we’re one”). Then they finish the song together: Anita broken, Maria devoted, Chita Rivera and Carole Lawrence’s voices communicating both the unity and the underlying tension of their experiences. This is my favorite song in the world.
1. “Tonight (Quintet)”
I have (very!) limited knowledge of opera, but I believe this kind of song originated there — the introduction of melodies from different characters that are then layered so skillfully that each voice can still be heard through the confluence until they build to a forceful climax. I don’t know if it has a name, but to my knowledge, the famous quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto is the exemplar of this, and as with “Bella figlia dell’ amore,” there’s a double duet here, with a little extra: the Jets and Sharks in paired battle cries, Anita with her earthy torch song, and Maria and Tony in a reprise of “Tonight,” made incandescent in this version by its soaring over the pandemonium and bitterness and rhythm of the other voices. I am an informed-enough musician to know just how complex it is to fit together these musical lines. This is not the parlor trick of Pachelbel’s Canon (six minutes of repeated I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V, I); this is work. It is great work. There should be no common ground between the “Jet Song” and “Tonight,” but Sondheim and Bernstein find a way — the patter from the former finds its way into the sustained phrase endings of the latter. The compilation is both angry and sublime, and although the beauty of “Tonight” sustains just enough over the violence, neither wins out. This song is the apotheosis of the show, and since the musical West Side Story has the greatest music written for a musical, then this is a masterpiece without equal.