In the musical “West Side Story,” currently being revived on Broadway, there’s a line from the song “I Feel Pretty” in which Maria sings, “For I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy.” For many people, the line is a throwaway. In my family, the line is infamous.
While growing up, my parents played their Broadway cast recordings for my brothers and me during long car trips, and we’d often get into arguments over lyrics, with my mom and dad on opposing sides. These arguments weren’t just about our nagging need to know what the person said. To us, the answers to these questions would define the message of the entire show or color our opinion of the lyricist’s entire oeuvre.
In “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” for instance, there’s a song called “A Lot Of Livin’ to Do.” It’s sung by Kim, the high school student from Sweet Apple, Ohio, and Conrad, the Elvis-like rock star who is supposed to kiss Kim on television before he goes into the army as part of an elaborate publicity stunt. The song is sung during Conrad’s last night as a civilian, as he goes out and parties with the other kids in the town (and, subtextually, it seems, is looking to get laid by one of the kids or perhaps Kim herself).
At one point in the movie soundtrack version of the song, Kim says — and I’m writing phonetically here, so as not to be disowned — “I may break a har-ta-day.” The dangling “ta” is either a combination of the final sound of “heart” and an indefinite article “a,” or the clear beginning of the word “today,” with the fact that a “t” sound from the word “heart” comes right before it being merely coincidental.
Will she break a heart “today” or does she plan to break one “a day”? Is Kim merely wondering if she’ll piss off her faithful boyfriend Hugo, either by participating in this whole kissing stunt or perhaps by hooking up with Conrad or someone else that night? Or is she considering a string — a life, even — of lovers, as this experience has opened her eyes to a burgeoning sexuality that she can now no longer bottle up?
Kim, you see, is a symbol of early 1960s American youth — of which my parents were a part — whose fate could be sealed by the meaning of this one tiny syllable. Is our craze for rock-and-roll as pioneered by Elvis merely an isolated, adolescent transgression that we simply outgrow? Or did rock and roll unearth the repression beneath America’s heartland, throw the country face first into the political and sexual revolution of the late 1960s and transform our entire value system for generations to come?
Ann-Margret’s recitation of this line so deftly defied decipherability that the matter was never settled. But the saga over Maria’s “pretty wonderful boy” has a more satisfying ending.
In “West Side Story,” Maria is the fresh-off-the-boat sister of the Puerto Rican gang leader Bernardo. She has the misfortune of falling in love with Tony, who’s allied with the rival white gang, the Jets. Maria, the idealist, thinks everything will turn out ok. In “I Feel Pretty,” at first glance, it seems that Maria, an innocent soul who is very much in love, is of course saying that Tony both pretty and wonderful, with the two words separated by a comma.
My mom, however, believed the phrase could not be so straightforward. The line comes at a climactic point in a song in which the lyrics are written by the master wordsmith Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, she reasoned, must be flipping to a different meaning of the word “pretty.” According to Merriam Webster online, in addition to referring to looks, “pretty” can also mean “moderately large,” with an emphasis on “moderate.” Maria is toying with us, my mom says. Maria is so high on her own prettiness that Tony is merely “pretty wonderful” in comparison. I still find it hard to wrap my head around why Maria might use “pretty” in this way. And my dad insisted that no Puerto Rican immigrant would ever make such a sophisticated turn of phrase.
Another interpretation, I believe, considers a modern usage of “pretty” that emphasizes the “large” side of “moderately large.” Think of when someone says “pretty good” while putting an emphasis on “pr” and an even stronger emphasis on “good,” usually with a higher-than-normal vocal pitch. Q: “That thing you weren’t expecting to go well — how did that turn out? A: “Pretty wonderful, actually.” On “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David will often use “pretty” in a similar way, with a rhythm that shortens the first syllable and extends the second: “prit-teee good. prit-teee, prit-teee good.” Maria could be using this same usage, saying, in effect, “I feel pretty, and hey, guess what, I also happen to be in love with this pretty damn wonderful boy.”
The interpretation of this line has far-reaching implications. Think of the song from “South Pacific,” with lyrics by Sondheim’s mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, in which the heroine Nellie Forbush sings, “I’m in love with a wonderful guy” without any sort of ironic twist to it. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s all-American values in shows like “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma” eventually gave way to Sondheim’s more mixed worldview as expressed by the likes of “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods.” “West Side Story,” Sondheim’s first Broadway show, lies on the cusp between the two eras. Is Maria an idealist like Nellie? Or does her finding Tony merely “pretty wonderful” — even if she’s joking — reveal a slight crack in their love that we don’t see anywhere else in the play? When combined with the fact that Maria sings this line almost at the same time as her first love is murdering her brother, a “no comma” interpretation seems to lead to the conclusion that love could all be just a silly, ill-fated game, as it is in “Sweeney Todd” and “Company.” This single comma, you see, could affect the whole arc of musical theater history.
It turns out Sondheim is a friend of a friend of my mom’s. One day my dad came home from work and my mom had an answer for him: no comma. Sondheim, she says, has acknowledged that the characters do not sing like typical Puerto Rican immigrants.
The other day I went with my parents to see the new Broadway revival of “West Side Story,” the first time I had ever seen the show on stage (I’ve seen the film). In this production, some of the songs sung by the Puerto Ricans were in Spanish, including “I Feel Pretty,” now translated as “Siento Hermosa.” As Arthur Laurents, the original book writer and director of this production, finally realized, not only would a recent immigrant not have spoken in such sophisticated English, a recent immigrant would not have spoken English at all.
Until I saw it onstage, I had no idea how bizarre “I Feel Pretty” really is. The song comes right after the rumble scene, in which each gang’s leader is killed. Plus, in this production, Maria is played by Josefina Scaglione, 21-year-old Argentinian who is so obviously “pretty” that to tell us she feels that way is redundant to the point of annoyance.
One of the biggest thrills of the night came when I looked in the Playbill and saw the English translation of the song: no comma. And as for the show itself — it was pretty wonderful.