Steven Spielberg's much-anticipated remake of quintessential New York City musical West Side Story premiered this week to mostly ecstatic reactions, give-or-take the Ansel Elgort-sized hole where a leading man would normally be. Much of the praise was focused on Tony Kushner's script, Stephen Spielberg's direction, and the acting/singing/dancing of the cast, particularly Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, and newcomer Rachel Zegler. But special praise should be given to the sound designers as well, who made the wise decision to mix modern subway sounds into the film despite being anachronistic—because even the subway likes to sing Leonard Bernstein.
Even if you haven't seen the film yet, you've likely already heard what I'm talking about—it's the sound you first hear when the 20th Century Studios logo pops up in the film's trailer. That sound is a familiar one to most New Yorkers, because it's the sound you hear whenever a subway train starts to move.
As the Times discovered over a decade ago, the AC (alternating currents) propulsion on trains put into the system after 2000 (R142 and up) causes it to sound like the first three notes of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim collaboration "Somewhere." The MTA, who says the production rented a vintage train and used the Bowery station to film some scenes, confirmed the details about the train noises to Gothamist as well.
The Times explained at the time that the sound is a fluke: "Newer trains run on alternating current, but the third rail delivers direct current; inverters chop it into frequencies that can be used by the alternating current motors, said Jeff Hakner, a professor of electrical engineering at Cooper Union. The frequencies excite the steel, he said, which — in the case of the R142 subway cars — responds by singing 'Somewhere.' Inverters on other trains run at different frequencies and thus are not gifted with such a recognizable song.”
As Gothamist previously reported way back in 2004, the three notes are minor sevenths, an exact match of the Maria and Tony duet. You can hear this electrical coincidence below, and compare it with the original song here.
One person who was very aware of this coincidence was Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's new take on the film. He told New York Magazine in 2008 that it was his favorite New York noise: "When the subway brakes are engaged, they sing the first three notes of ['Somewhere'] from West Side Story."
Here's another video mashing up the original subway sound with the song...all wrapped up with EDM/Jungle percussion, because there's a place for that too.
The movie, which is Spielberg's love letter to the original film and well-choreographed street gangs, will furiously mambo into theaters on December 10th, before doing a high leg lift onto Disney+ early in 2022.