How Lin-Manuel Miranda Used 'West Side Story' To Reclaim 'Maria' For Puerto Rico

'Almost Like Praying' borrows a key lyric from the beloved musical

Lin-Manuel Miranda's new song "Almost Like Praying" is a star-studded love letter to the people of Puerto Rico, many of whom are still recovering from the devastation left by Hurricane Maria last month. Therefore, it's extremely fitting that Miranda's own declaration of love for the embattled island would feature a tribute to one of the greatest love stories of all time: the beloved musical West Side Story, the 1957 story of an ill-fated romance between a white gang member named Tony and a Puerto Rican girl named Maria.

Those with an admiration for musical theater, like Tony Award-winner Miranda, will instantly recognize the song's titular hook as a heartfelt reference to an iconic lyric from the West Side Story classic, "Maria." The timeless ballad captures teenage Tony's sudden infatuation with the soft-spoken, beautiful Maria, as he sings her name on the streets of New York City.

"Maria... Say it loud and there's music playing," he croons. "Say it soft and it's almost like praying."

Tony (Richard Beymer) sings "Maria" in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. Composer Jimmy Bryant provided Tony's singing voice.

Miranda was inspired to borrow that key lyric — "it's almost like praying" — as a way to reclaim the name "Maria" in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters on record to hit the island of Puerto Rico.

"I was very aware even as it was happening that this was the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in a hundred years, and I knew that 'Maria' would forever have a different connotation on the island as a result of that," the Hamilton creator told NPR following the release of the charity single. "And that's my favorite song from West Side Story. So I began thinking about that song and the lyrics and a way to flip it into something positive."

After getting the OK from composer Leonard Bernstein's estate and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Miranda also recruited Puerto Rican-American actress and 85-year-old spitfire Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her memorable portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, for the track. You can watch Moreno in the studio with Miranda — in addition to fellow Latin artists Jennifer Lopez, Luis Fonsi, Gloria Estefan, and more — in the behind-the-scenes video below.

All proceeds from "Almost Like Praying" will go toward Puerto Rico relief efforts through the Hispanic Federation's Unidos Disaster Relief Fund.

To donate directly to the Hispanic Federation's Disaster Relief Fund, text UNIDOS to 41444.

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