Yes, You Can Hum It: The Enduring Power of Music From 'West Side Story'
A reflection on the great American score, including what lyricist Stephen Sondheim had to say about its viability at the time
It's no wonder Steven Spielberg decided to remake West Side Story. It's a proven winner. This is true not only of the original 1961 film (10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture) but also its music. Even 60 years later, the West Side Story soundtrack still holds the record for longest time at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, at 54 weeks. (Although Michael Jackson fans might cry foul. In West Side Story’s era, Billboard had separate album charts for stereo and mono albums, meaning that two albums got to lay claim to the top spots each week. For the record, Thriller notched 37 weeks at No. 1 in the '80s.)
”You can’t hum anything.” — Stephen Sondheim
Released on Oct. 18, 1961, the West Side Story album struck a chord with America. But the late lyricist Stephen Sondheim once recalled that the music of West Side Story wasn't an immediate hit."
Up until the release of the film, the [Broadway] score was universally pounced on," Sondheim told me in a mid-'90s interview for The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. "When the show opened in New York City, they said it's all very exciting, but you can't hum anything. Then the movie came out four years later, and suddenly, everyone could hum everything."
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The emerging hits from West Side Story
Among the songs that took off from that soundtrack — a collaboration with the iconic composer Leonard Bernstein, it should be noted — was the rousing "America," which chronicled the plight of immigrants assimilating into the U.S. And Sondheim noted that other songs were so popular that they were later covered by famous singers: “Maria” by Johnny Mathis and “Tonight” by Dinah Shore.
Interestingly, only one actor from the film is featured on the soundtrack: Russ Tamblyn (father of Joan of Arcadia star Amber Tamblyn), who played Riff in the film. Other singers dubbed the vocals for songs: Marni Nixon handled the vocals of Maria (played by Natalie Wood in the movie), Jim Bryan sang for Tony (Richard Beymer), and Betty Wand sang the part of Anita (Rita Moreno).
And the music has endured. Even before this new film remake, contemporary artists were performing the music of West Side Story. In 1997 jazz artist Dave Grusin released the tribute album, Dave Grusin Presents West Side Story, featuring a diverse collection of collaborators, including Gloria Estefan, Bill Evans, Jon Secada and others.
"West Side Story is the greatest musical that's ever been written," says Secada, who performed "Somewhere" on that album. "Bernstein is just amazing. I had the opportunity to sing that song. The melody, the lyrics and the message are politically so strong and so powerful. As a vocalist, when I sing it, it's always an emotional hayride. It's one of the greatest songs from a musical that I've ever heard."
Craig Rosen is a veteran music journalist who has previously written for Billboard magazine and is the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Albums.