Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Call to Adventure
"Could be… who knows…?" Tony senses something in the wind when the movie starts, and even has a whole song about it. Riff calls him to adventure: to come to the dance and back him against Bernardo and the Sharks. But Tony's song is responding to a different, bigger call. Whatever's happening there, it's going to change things for our hero forever.
Refusal of the Call
Tony almost refuses the call. At first, he doesn't want to go to the gym and confront Bernardo. But he relents, which sets the plot into motion.
Meeting The Mentor
Part of the vibe in West Side Story is that these kids don't really have a proper mentor. There's even a whole song, "Gee, Officer Krupke," lamenting about how mentor-free their life is. Quite the conundrum for the up-and-coming Campbellian Heroes.
Thankfully, both of our young lovers have someone they can confide in, and who at least attempt to steer them in the right direction. For Tony, it's Doc: the friendly, if utterly hapless soda shop owner who gives him a job and gets him out of the gang life. For Maria, it's Anita, who tries to steer Maria clear of Tony but becomes an understanding older sister-type once she realizes that's not gonna happen.
Crossing The Threshold
You could name two points in the film as the threshold. The first comes when Tony shows up at the dance and spots Maria. The second comes when the lovers meet after the dance and pledge their undying love. Suddenly, our hero has something to fight for plus all the trials and tribulations that come with it.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Allies and enemies have a way of changing sides very quickly here. Is Anita going to help the lovers or stab them in the back? Is Riff down with this, or would he if he wasn't stabbed to death? Either way, it's going to be treacherous. The course of true love never did run smooth (to quote this movie's favorite author), and whether it's the cops, the gang war, the ugly death of various loved ones… it's hard to know who's on your side.
Approach to The Inmost Cave
The innermost cave in this case is actually not "inner" anything. It's the concept of escape: getting out instead of going in. Tony and Maria need to get away from their neighborhood if their love is going to survive: a pie-in-the-sky dream that even they can't quite figure out how to reach. They even have a song about it, which we dare you to watch without bawling.
To get where they need to go, Tony and Maria need to risk everything. That means trusting folks they shouldn't (like Anita), getting past the cops and their colleagues (who are seriously out for blood), then running as far as they can. It doesn't work. Tony is told that Maria is dead and storms out into the streets to join her. Self-sacrifice is definitely part of the Hero's Journey. In this case, though, it's based on a lie, which means that while it can still be noble, it just won't be happy.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Tony's "reward" for offering his own life is one brief look at Maria—confirming that she is not, in fact, dead—then getting gunned down in the streets. He makes the ultimate sacrifice for love like any good hero should. The trouble is, that sacrifice wasn't necessary, just a stupid mistake fueled by hate.
The Road Back
There's no road back for Tony and Maria. Tony's dead and Maria may follow him if her threats about suicide are to be believed. But in the face of that, the Jets and the Sharks get a good look at what their feud has produced and how they created this tragedy. In that sense, maybe—just maybe—the road back can teach them something.
Literal resurrection, even symbolic resurrection, isn't in the cards in West Side Story. The Hero's Journey deals in epic triumphs, and this one's more of a painful tragedy. But there is a reaffirmation of love as Tony lies dying in the streets, and if their commitment to each other can't continue, at least they can show the world how deep and meaningful that commitment is. Love never dies, etc., etc.
Return With The Elixir
No real elixir here; this isn't a story with a happy ending. But Maria's final speech may hold some measure of benefit to the society around her. She shows them what their hate and anger have done, what it's destroyed, what it's left behind, and for once the lesson seems to have sunk in. She and Tony have suffered for their world's sins. The world at least, finally has the decency to feel bad about it.