Somewhere in Spielberg’s West Side Story There’s a Singing Role for the Subway

Photo: 20th Century Studios

Transit nerds, Steven Spielberg has a gift for you. In a musical, it’s standard practice to scatter the motifs from your songs into your score, using them to thread together whatever emotional echoes you want to reverberate throughout the story. But in his film adaptation of West Side Story, one of those motifs pops up in an unlikely source: the New York City subway.

If you’ve taken the subway a lot in New York City, you might be familiar with a peculiar, whirring three-note refrain that plays just as some of the trains pull out of the station. It rises a minor seventh and then resolves down a half-step to a major sixth, a sequence of notes that just so happens to trace the opening phrase “There’s a place” from the song “Somewhere” in West Side Story (it’s also the reference that some music theory teachers, or at least my music theory teacher, use to teach you what a minor seventh sounds like in the first place). In the film, Tony and María decide to rendezvous at a subway station after meeting in secret at her balcony after the dance. When they get into a train and head off to the Cloisters for a date, you can hear that distinctive minor-seventh resolving to major-sixth screech.

The inclusion of the sound is anachronistic, but it’s a distinctively New York Easter egg. According to a New York Times report from 2009, the subway sound popped up thanks to the introduction of the electronic R142 subway cars, first installed in 1999 and common on the 2, 4, and 5 lines by then. The gist of the electrical engineering at play seems to be that those cars run on an alternating current, and as they sync up with the direct current from the third rail to power their motors, the steel vibrates at frequencies that just so happen to recall Bernstein’s score.

West Side Story is set in the late 1950s, during the infamous “slum clearance” that led to the construction of Lincoln Center (it will make you break out your copy of The Power Broker). Of course the subway that Tony and María ride wouldn’t have actually made that sound, but the reference is a nifty call-out to a very specific New York phenomenon. It also just so happens to be a good way to reference the doomed nature of the two lead characters’ love diegetically, by having the subway serenade them with the same haunting theme you’ll hear the movie repeat later. Oh, and finally, back in 2008, Tony Kushner, who wrote the script for Spielberg’s version of the musical, told us here at New York that the subway sound was his favorite New York noise. A whole poetic series of thematic resonances! That’s just good screenwriting structure.

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Somewhere in West Side Story There’s a Singing Subway