Admirers of Leonard Bernstein's most popular Broadway musical West Side Story generally consider "Maria," "Tonight," and "Somewhere" the three finest songs in the show. Of these, "Maria" appears first, coming after Tony leaves the dance, where he met and fell in love with Maria. She would normally be considered off-limits to a boy like Tony: she is Puerto Rican and engaged to Chino. But Tony sees beyond the prejudices of society and senses that this will be the love of his life.
The song begins with Tony mesmerized by thoughts of the beautiful girl he had just kissed, the beautiful girl abruptly pulled away from him at the dance by her overly protective brother Bernardo. Tony repeats her name again and again, and out of it Bernstein ingeniously fashions the three notes that launch the main theme, a beautiful creation full of passion and yearning, of warmth and soaring lyricism. Stephen Sondheim's masterful lyrics contribute to the powerful sweep of emotion here. When Tony expresses his overwhelming feelings of love and infatuation, Sondheim imaginatively yet simply captures his lovesick state of mind: "Maria, say it loud and there's music playing; Say it soft and it's almost like praying." When the orchestra takes up the melody, Tony revels in the beauties of her name once more, singing it ecstatically again and again. Without doubt, "Maria" is one of Bernstein's most memorable and beautiful songs from any genre.