In 1962, even as the rock and roll era was regrouping and other sounds like folk and jazz were gaining in popularity, musical theater and its expanding audience through cinematic releases, still reigned supreme on the charts. The number one selling album for 1962 AND 1963 was the soundtrack to West Side Story. Unlike My Fair Lady, Camelot, or even The Sound of Music, I have seen the film version of West Side Story, even though it has been many, many years.
I have always known Natalie Wood played Maria, the female lead in this tragic story based loosely on “Romeo and Juliet”. I did not know, until reading up on this soundtrack, that she did not do the singing for Maria. This was performed by Marni Nixon, and the male lead also had an alternate vocalist, Jimmy Bryant, in lieu of Richard Beymer. Setting the stage for a generation of dance rumble-brawls in film and music videos, there are several songs recognizable to the novice musical theater fan. “Maria”, “Tonight”, and “I Feel Pretty” are musical theater staples, and stand out above the other tracks in this collection. Beyond the theatrical appeal of this romantic musical tragedy, “West Side Story” stands out for confronting racial tension and violence, even within the relatively benign boundaries of a musical. The message remains clear, that despite our obvious differences, we are better served embracing the diversity of other cultures and coming together through this turmoil. Distrust and hate only breed violence and sadness, and how many lives have been unnecessarily ended or destroyed because of this inability to love one another, regardless of differences in background, faith or culture?
Myopically looking at the songs alone, I think would rate this soundtrack as good, not great, and will always think of West Side Story as a showcase for Natalie Wood and a highly relevant story in the 20th century melting pot of urban America. It’s staying power as the #1 album for two years in a row is indisputable, and it clearly frames where the mass musical preferences of America aligned in the early 1960s.