Honorable mentions: “Quintet,” “America”
What a mistake it was to turn this into a duet.
Like most people who know a musical that’s nearly sixty years old, my first contact with West Side Story was the 1961 movie, the first of four musicals to take Best Picture in that decade. One gets used to the back and forth in that musical pretty rapidly – some high energy dancing and/or fighting from supporting characters bleeds into the blissfully quiet world of Maria and Tony, where no one leaps and no puns are drawn. The practically monosyllabic lyrics are whispered in moonlit rooms. In a movie with a runtime of two and a half hours, this pattern grows repetitive quickly. Interestingly, the stage show doesn’t fall into quite so neatly into the trap of group number, duet, group number, duet, etc. “Somewhere” is sung by a member of the cast who is decidedly not a principal, while we get to watch Tony and Maria react.
“Somewhere” lacks the confident emotional resonance of “One Hand, One Heart,” which is why one hears the latter more often at weddings. It also is less optimistic than “Tonight,” and less iconic for it. But there’s good reason for that: Tony has just killed Bernardo, Maria’s brother. “Somewhere” is a song which emphasizes desperation, which is why I adore it. There’s something intensely appealing about music which begs people to dig their fingernails in and never let go. In regular speech, those people are clingy or annoyingly unrealistic. In music the nobility is likewise absent, but at least we understand where desperate singers come from, and we appreciate their pain rather than focusing on how pathetic it is.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas” is the perfect expression of desperation in music, in which all dignity is stripped away. And while begging a woman to allow him to be the “shadow of your dog” is hardly what any of us aspires to, I think most of us have touched that feeling. “Somewhere” is part of that same genre, where the instrumental is there to set the tone and the words are brands to make the tone immemorial and archetypal.
“Somewhere” is the decrescendo of Tony and Maria’s love, which is why it’s so much more appropriate for them not to sing it together, but rather to hear it overhead. The lyrics are romantic, certainly – “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there/Hold my hand and I’ll take you there” – but they lack the certainty of previous love songs. The place they have in mind is not one that either one of them has ever visited. The time they have in mind is not one that they will witness. The song ends with the words, “Somehow…someday…somewhere.” It ends with vagaries, with unspecific hopes. Even if Tony hadn’t been shot and killed, there couldn’t be any real future for that couple; by Act 2, their certainty that their love will win out has been replaced with doubt, mere hopes that it will play out in the future. It is less personal than “Ne Me Quitte Pas, but certainly it is about as pathetic.