From the minds of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim came the brilliant songs that make West Side Story one of the most popular and enduring musicals of all time. Both on the stage and on-screen it has been a massive hit, with a new (and perhaps unnecessary?) remake heading to cinema screens in 2021 underlining the timeless nature of the story and the music.
Some of the songs from West Side Story have transcended beyond the film and stage, so people may know them without realising they are from this production. Meanwhile, there are other songs that are no less good, but perhaps are under-appreciated and deserve more fame.
Below is a definitive ranking of all the best songs from West Side Story (definitive according to me at this time as I will probably change my mind next week!) Starting with my least favourites, we move towards those songs that have unforgettable lyrics and tunes that I just can’t stop listening to (and singing very badly to!)
One Hand, One Heart
Favourite lyrics: “Make of our lives one life, day after day, one life”
One Hand One Heart is a very short but sweet duet in the second half of West Side Story between Tony and Maria. They sing in the dress shop, pretending to have a wedding which they know would be impossible to have in reality. The scene is their last moment of happiness before the rumble and before things start to go badly wrong for them, which makes it even more touching and bittersweet.
It is a simple yet beautiful song, and the voices of Jim Bryant and Marni Nixon worked really well together. They blended together perfectly to make an enjoyable and emotional song, even though most viewers would probably struggle to remember it after the film.
Favourite lyrics: “I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly that name, will never be the same, to me”
One of my main issues with Maria is the constant repetition of the name Maria, especially in a middle section, which means it is one of my least favourite songs in West Side Story. Sung by Tony after seeing Maria at the dance, Maria quite clearly shows how much in love he is with her!
I do really like the melody and it really conveys the happiness and wonder that Tony is feeling. It is one of the more famous songs from West Side Story, probably helped by the fact it’s very easy to remember- just keep singing Maria! But it’s not just the name that makes it memorable, the music itself stays with you and is a really beautiful composition.
A Boy Like That/I Have a Love
Favourite lyrics: “A boy like that who’d kill your brother, forget that boy and find another.”
This is a dramatic duet between Maria and Anita after Tony has killed Bernardo. You can see and hear the emotion in both characters as they try to come to terms with what has happened, but Rita Moreno put in a particularly powerful performance. However, both singing parts were actually dubbed, with Marni Nixon as Maria and Betty Wand for Anita (just for this song).
It is one of the more forgettable numbers in West Side Story, but that doesn’t mean it’s average by any stretch of the imagination! The bigger songs of the film may overshadow it, but A Boy Like That/I Have a Love is still worth listening to and watching. Despite the situation being grave for both characters, it’s nice that we get to see this moment just between Anita and Maria to get an insight into how they’re feeling and their relationship with each other.
Favourite lyrics: “Today all day I had the feeling a miracle would happen, I know now I was right.”
This romantic duet between Tony and Maria should be higher up but there’s too many good songs to choose from! Tonight takes place soon after Tony and Maria meet, before anything bad happened to spoil their love for each other. It’s a touching song that could have been quite soppy, but actually works well with the characters and tone of the film.
If I went and sang a song like Tonight to a boy I just met that evening, I think I’d be considered quite intense and strange. (I might stand a better chance if I had Marni Nixon singing for me though!) However, in the rather intense world of West Side Story, this whirlwind romance/love-at-first-sight is believable which makes this song and its emotion work. Tonight gives Tony and Maria a precious moment together where they can celebrate their love, before it all comes crashing down.
Favourite lyrics: “Then you are set with a capital J”
The Jet Song is a relatively short song that comes at the start of West Side Story and I think it does a great job of introducing the Jets to us. It talks about what it means to be a Jet and what’s important to them, and also covers their animosity with the Sharks. Riff (played by the wonderful Russ Tamblyn), as leader of the Jets, begins the song and then it is taken up by the rest of the gang.
It has quite a similar vibe to Cool as it’s quite laidback and jazzy, and contrasts with the Hispanic feel of the Shark numbers like America and I Feel Pretty. Jet Song may not be the most famous song of West Side Story, but it is incredibly catchy and, even though gangs are bad, for those few minutes you really want to join in and be a Jet!
Favourite lyrics: “Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it”
If there ever was a song that looked and sounded cool, this is it. Taking place after Riff’s death, new leader of the Jets, Ice, (Tucker Smith) tries to get the rest of the gang to play it cool despite their anger, desire for revenge, and inner turmoil. Throughout the song you see bursts of emotion, but they get these under control and just stay cool. Interestingly, this number was swapped with Gee Officer Krupke; in the stage play Cool is sung by Riff in the first half. I think this change was for the better as the dark mood of the song fits perfectly with the overall more serious tone of the second part of West Side Story.
The finger clicks, the jazzy melodies, Ice’s singing, the expressive dancing, and the overall energy from all of the cast make this a stand-out scene in the film. It’s not just about the singing and the lyrics, but also very much about the amazing choreography and how the characters manage to convey their feelings through dance.
Apparently the dancers had a terrible time filming the dance for Cool as it was in a cold, dark garage with incredibly demanding choreography that they did over and over again. Illness and injuries were seemingly rife, and yet in the final movie they manage to look so cool! The cast suffered for their art, and I think we all appreciate it as they created a truly memorable and gripping number!
I Feel Pretty
Favourite lyrics: “See the pretty girl in that mirror there: who can that attractive girl be?”
I Feel Pretty is a fun and upbeat song, coming before we get to the darker tone of the film. Maria is singing about how happy she is and how pretty she feels, all because of Tony’s love and her love for Tony. Her happiness shines through the screen, which makes the contrast with the latter part of the film even more stark.
This is a light-hearted number and allows us to see Maria and the other girls in the bridal shop be playful and fun. They mess around with the outfits and accessories in the shop and it makes a refreshing change to the more serious love songs and gang numbers that make up most of the film. It isn’t a deep song with an important message, but I Feel Pretty is certainly catchy so you will find it stays in your head for a while!
Favourite lyrics: “It’s only just out of reach, down the block, on a beach.”
Something’s Coming is Tony’s first song in West Side Story, sang just before he meets Maria. Tony is getting tired of the Jets and he can feel that “something’s coming, something good”. You can feel the hope and optimism in the melody as well as the lyrics, although the melody is also tinged with some warning that things may not turn out quite so good.
Something’s Coming is an unusual song as it doesn’t seem to follow any set structure. There’s no verse or chorus structure; it’s almost like the song is just coming naturally from Tony’s thoughts. There’s changing rhythms with quick sections and longer, more drawn-out notes which keeps the song unpredictable and exciting to listen to.
I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in music so I’m not going to try and analyse this song anymore, but I do think it does a great job of setting the scene for Tony and Maria’s meeting and subsequent tragic story.
Favourite lyrics: “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”
Somewhere is a beautiful duet between Maria and Tony (sung by Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant who dubed for Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the whole film.) This song has fame beyond West Side Story as it has been covered numerous times over the years, which I think it deserves. The lyrics may be pretty simple, but combined with the melody it creates a really emotional song that will simultaneously make you feel sad and hopeful.
Tony and Maria sing Somewhere after Tony has killed Maria’s brother Bernardo. Hardly the most romantic introduction to this duet about love! But it definitely is a touching and emotional song. The young lovers sing about escaping the problems of the world and going somewhere where they can be together and love each other without any worries, giving them a moment of hope before reality comes crashing back down.
I think everyone can relate to dreaming of a better place and getting away from all your problems, even for just a few minutes, which is why this song has resonated with me and so many others and been so successful.
Favourite lyrics: Bernardo: “I think I’ll go back to San Juan” Anita: “I know a boat you can get on!”
This is the big number for the Sharks, Anita, and the other girls and it is one of the standout songs in the whole film! The music, the lyrics, and the dancing all come together to create an entertaining spectacle that also explores the experience of immigrants in America. Sadly, much of what is said still resonates today.
On the one hand, Anita sings the praises of America- seeing it as a land of opportunity and where they can have a much better life than back in Puerto Rico. On the other side is Bernardo, who sees the inequality and discrimination they face in America and thinks the “American Dream” is just an illusion. Lyrics like “Life is alright in America. If you’re all white in America.” show how there can be two sides to America- the one with gleaming skyscrapers where you can live a happy and content life, and the other side, experienced by many immigrants, where you live in bad conditions doing poorly paid jobs with seemingly no way of escape.
The music and dancing have a distinctly Hispanic feel, which contrasts with the Jets and most of the other numbers in West Side Story. America also gives the powerhouses of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris time to shine, and they definitely take it! Not only are they great individually, the way they interact and bounce off each other makes this number even more memorable and powerful.
Interestingly, in the stage version of West Side Story, America is sang just by Anita and the girls, contrasting the poor life in Puerto Rico with the good life in America. I think the angle the movie took- looking at the good and bad in America- has a much greater impact so I’m glad they changed this!
Favourite lyric: “We said OK no rumpus, no tricks. But just in case they jump us, we’re ready to mix…tonight.”
You know things are getting serious when there’s a large ensemble number! The quintet version of Tonight is a musical masterpiece, with so much going on but not too much that it becomes chaotic and hard to understand or listen to. It is based around the Tonight duet between Maria and Tony, and they feature in this version too. However, we also have the Jets and the Sharks anticipating “the rumble”, as well as Anita waiting for the return of her boyfriend Bernardo.
Love (Tony, Maria, Anita) and hatred (Jets and Sharks) battle throughout the song, with neither coming out on top. Instead, we have a grand finale with everybody singing about what they want from “tonight” and you know that nobody is going to come away from that night happy. This is a perfect way to build tension towards the climax of the story, and truly outclasses any other musical ensemble number. Yes, even One Day More from Les Miserables!
Gee Officer Krupke
Favourite lyric: The entire song! But if I had to choose “It’s not I’m anti-social, I’m only anti-work.”
I also love the way Riff/Russ Tamblyn says “Hey! I’ve got a social disease!”
How does a song written so many years ago still feel so relevant? A comedic song discussing the different forces and pressures in society that lead to youths joining gangs and getting into trouble doesn’t necessarily sound like it would work. However, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim manage to create a light-hearted and entertaining number that highlights the many problems in society, particularly how youths are criminalised and fall through the gaps. This is quite a controversial and sensitive topic, so you can’t help but admire the fact they managed to not only pull it off, but do so in a hugely successful way!
I can’t get enough of this song, not only because of the incredibly clever and witty lyrics, but also because of the acting performance of the Jets and Riff (Russ Tamblyn) in particular. With members of the Jets taking on the roles of a judge, psychiatrist, and social worker, Riff plays the part of the juvenile delinquent being passed around these groups, with nobody taking responsibility for him or actually helping him. The Jets use their surroundings to act out these scenes, including a courtroom and a psychiatrist’s couch, and Riff gives an incredibly physical performance with numerous flips and jumps. You can definitely tell Russ Tamblyn had an acrobatic background!
In my opinion, Gee Officer Krupke is a masterpiece and stands out for its lyrics, comedy, and performance of Russ Tamblyn in particular. That’s not to say the other songs from West Side Story are not amazing though.
I could make a case for several songs to top this list, but there can only be one winner in this particular ranking!
What is your favourite West Side Story song?