Doomed lover; bad boy turned good; starry-eyed optimist.
That's our Tony, best buddies with Riff and co-founder of the Jets back in the day. Tony's had enough of gang life, and has taken a job at the local soda fountain. He's waiting for something good to happen and he just knows it's a-comin'.
But, being as how this is a Romeo and Juliet story, things aren't going to be that simple.
As they say, "when you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way," and though he may not want to, Tony's going to get pulled back in to the life he thought he'd left behind.
Tony's an idealist, a romantic; maybe that's why he couldn't stay in the gang, where the guys seem hopeless about their prospects. and best thing they could imagine happening to them was to own their piece of the street. Tony's thinking bigger. He just knows something great is going to happen to him someday:
TONY: Could be, who knows.
There's something due any day.
I will know right away
Soon as it shows.
It's comin' cannonballing out of the sky, gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
[…] I don't know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great.
The air is hummin',
And something great is comin'!
That something will be Maria. Given that her brother's his sworn enemy, he's going to need all the optimism he can get.
At the dance at the gym, Tony's slammed by the proverbial bolt from the blue. The world disappears as he and Maria first lock eyes. He could have said:
Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
[…] Did my heart love till now?
Forswear it, sight!
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.
He doesn't. That's Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 5. He must not have read it.
Instead, he sings,
TONY: Maria. Maria
I've just met a girl named Maria!
And suddenly that name
Will never be the same to me.
Shmoop loves Stephen Sondheim, but it's just not the same…
Still, he's as lovesick, obsessed, and over-the moon as Romeo. He can't stay away from her. Risking his safety, he sneaks into her neighborhood that night and pledges his undying love.
TONY: Today, the world was just an address,
A place for me to live in,
No better than all right.
But here you are,
And what was just a world is a star
The day after they meet, Tony sneaks into the dress shop to visit Maria after everyone's left for the day. Maria's worried what will happen to them because of the feuding gangs, but he's not:
TONY: Everything is good for us. We got magic!
Tony's hopefulness wins her over. In a touching scene at the shuttered dress shop, he proposes. They have a pretend wedding using the shop's mannequin and plan their life together.
Tony's romantic idealism, plus his infatuation for Maria, blinds him to the possibility of danger. Bernardo? "I like him and he'll like me!" The rumble? "I've stopped it!"
Doc tries to break through to him to warn him about the dangers of this romance:
TONY: From here on in, everything's gonna be all right. I got a feeling!
DOC: What have you been taking tonight?
TONY: A trip to the moon! […] I'm gonna see her tomorrow an' I can't wait!
DOC: Tony...things aren't tough enough?
TONY: Tough? Doc, I'm in love!
Even after the worst case scenario ever—Tony kills Bernardo—he can't let go of the hope that he and Maria can find a place together in a broken, hate-filled world:
There's a place for us.
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere.
It's almost unbearably sad to watch this scene. We know his somewhere is going to end in a few hours, but he's got to have enough hope for both of them.
What makes Tony different from the rest of the Jets? After all, he formed the gang with Riff. He was their leader. He's "got a rep bigger than the whole West Side," according to his buddy. Riff reveres him. Now he's a working stiff, a striver, hopeful. He respects authority. He thinks good things will happen to him. Where'd things go wrong? Um, we mean right.
We don't know much of Tony's backstory, but that's never stopped Shmoop from speculating. Riff, in his "Sergeant Krupke" parody, proclaims, "We're depraved on account of we're deprived!" He's not talking about financial deprivation; they're all poor, including Tony. He's talking about being emotionally deprived.
RIFF: Dear Officer Krupke,
We're very upset.
We never had the love that every child oughta get!
We know he's right, because Lt. Schrank taunts the Jets later about the alcoholism and promiscuity in their families. We also know that Riff moved in with Tony years ago, probably escaping some seriously bad stuff at home.
So is that the clue? Maybe Tony has a stable home life, which is why Riff moved in. Maybe he has people who care about him and what happens to him. Psychologists call this "secure attachment." They know that kids who have a secure attachment in the first years of life are more likely to feel that they're basically okay; they think the world is basically okay. They tend to have more stable relationships later in life, better self-esteem. They feel protected. They don't need a gang to feel safe.
Maybe Tony's parents even imparted some values that countered his attraction to gang life—the value of work, respect for authority—all that corny stuff.
Beymer himself had a simpler take on the matter: bad casting. Tamblyn told an interviewer, "Beymer wasn't happy with his performance as Tony. He thought he was miscast: he was from a farm in Indiana and had no street sense whatsoever" (source).
But isn't our explanation more interesting?
Despite all Tony's idealism, love, and hope, the hate he's fighting against is stronger than all that. All his attempts to fix things fail, and he ends up killing his lover's brother and having to go on the run.
He feels every moment of it, too, which is why he's ultimately a tragic character. This guy bleeds for the sins of the world. He hates himself when he kills Bernardo, and he can't quite believe it when fate seems to turn against him and Maria at every turn.
TONY: I tried to stop it. I did try. I don't know what went wrong. I didn't mean to hurt him. I didn't want to! But Riff was like my brother. When Bernardo killed him… Bernardo didn't mean it either, I know.
He really did try, and Maria may be the only one who understands that. She also understands that Tony isn't interested in weaseling out of the consequences. Unlike the other gang members, he accepts responsibility for what he did. (Or at least he wants to.)
TONY: I didn't come to tell you that. Just to forgive me so I could go to the police.
That makes him tragic, since it ultimately costs him his life. But it also makes him a hero because he tries. Tragic heroes try to do the right thing, but it's just not in the cards for them. And because they're such awesome guys (or gals) they won't just run away when things get tough. They'll stay and fight for the things they believe in, when running away might have extended their lifespan.
Frankly, Tony doesn't care if he lives or dies. When he thinks that Maria's dead, he goes charging out into the streets. He'd probably be just as happy getting clobbered by a bus as getting shot by Chino…boy's got it just that bad.
TONY: Come on, Chino, get me too!
The things we do for love.
Funny thing is, love may be worth fighting for the way he does, especially in a smelly armpit of a neighborhood like his. Die for love? That sounds a heck of a lot better than dying from some turf war; or worse, because one day you robbed a liquor store and didn't move quickly enough when the cops yelled "Stop!" All things being equal, Tony would gladly die if it means doing the right thing.
We gotta give it up for "a boy like that."
Maria is a gentle soul. That's part of her charm. She seems innocent and naïve like another young maiden in similar circumstances, but she's also smarter than a lot of people. Smart enough to know that she doesn't love Chino, and that marrying him would be a big mistake.
MARIA: Chino… when I look at Chino, nothing happens.
ANITA: Well, what do you expect to happen.
MARIA: I don't know. Something.
She's also young, and when you're young, you think you're bulletproof. She's a recent immigrant to America and ready to explore her new world. That gives her an energy and an enthusiasm that not a lot of other characters possess. She's ready to get out there and go, and she really isn't afraid of the consequences, even though her brother and Anita try to rein her in.
And yet she's smart enough to spot some of those pitfalls.
She knows what she's getting herself into, especially with Tony, but she chooses to go forward anyway. Because her love is absolutely worth it to her. She even forgives Tony for killing her brother. Why? Because she's smart enough to know that the hate and anger in their neighborhood is what created the problem in the first place.
TONY We'll be all right, I know it. We're really together now.
MARIA: But it's not us. It's everything around us.
It's love that she cares about, and once her mind is set, nothing's gonna change it:
MARIA: I have a love, and that's all that I need,
Right or wrong, and he needs me too.
I love him, we're one, there's nothing to be done.
Not a thing I can do, but hold him, hold him forever;
Be with him now, tomorrow and all of my life.
MARIA AND ANITA: When love comes so strong,
There is no right or wrong;
Your love is your life.
Seriously, the guy killed her brother. And yet she's instantly ready to believe that it was all in self-defense. She takes Tammy Wynnette to a whole new level. Maria reaches that well-adjusted forgiveness on her terms, not Anita's or Tony's or anyone else's. When Anita spends a whole darn song trying to turn her against Tony, she just doesn't buy it:
MARIA: It isn't true, not for me,
It's true for you, not for me,
I hear your words--
And in my head
I know they're smart
But my heart, Anita,
But my heart
Knows they're wrong.
What can we say? The girl's got heart.
That gives Maria the strength to overcome the biggest obstacle of all: Tony's death. She tells the other kids that she now can hate like them, but she doesn't kill them or herself. She doesn't pull the trigger on that gun. Like Tony, she's stronger than anyone else in the story, which means she gets to suffer for the world's sins, too.
She takes a last stand:
MARIA: You all killed him. And my brother. And Riff. Not with bullets and guns. With hate!
So yeah, things don't go well for the innocents in this movie, and Maria's the most innocent of all. But while it may hurt her more than anyone, she can bear it.
When Tony leaves the Jets, it falls to Riff to lead them, and frankly speaking, they could do a lot worse. Riff's a juvenile delinquent —he has a whole song about it—but he's having so much fun. Just look at his acrobatics on the playground, dancing and strutting.
"Fun," in fact, seems to be Riff's watchword. He enjoys being a street punk. Not specifically to hurt people (which would be much less fun), but because it tells him who he is.
Riff is defined by his Jet-ness. The gang represents all he is and all he aspires to. It gives him a sense of belonging, some good buddies to hang out with, and even a sense of personal worth that a street kid from New York could never hope for. He sings all about it in the movie's opening number:
RIFF: When you're Jet
You're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dying day.
When you're a Jet
Let 'em do what they can.
You've got brothers around,
You're a family man!
Being king of the hill, even the cruddy little hill of his cruddy little neighborhood, makes Riff feel good. In that opening dance number, and frankly in the rest of the film too, he's smiling, happy and clowning around, laughing, swinging on the playground, and generally enjoying life. He views himself as something of a benevolent dictator, and he's not even particularly mean. He just needs everyone to understand that the Jets call the shots.
Look at the way he deals with the kids on the basketball court in the beginning: holding onto their ball and letting them know he can do whatever he wants to with it. It's a jerk move, menacing and disruptive, but he gives it back instead of keeping it or punting it onto a nearby rooftop. He was in it for respect, not to ruin everyone else's day. Even when he's out for blood, the dude has a smile on his face.
That's why the Sharks rub him the wrong way. They don't knuckle under. They fight back. In Riff's mind, they disrespect him, and in the process, they ruin his good time. When he's around them, he morphs right into tough-guy mode; no smiles. The Sharks have to be out of the picture before he can think of himself as the king of the hill again.
Riff is 100% loyal to Tony. They started the gang together, and when the Jets question Tony's character—he took a job, for Pete's sake—Riff isn't hearing any of it.
ACTION: Tony don't belong any more.
RIFF: Cut it, Action boy. I and Tony started the Jets. […] He's always come through for us and he will now.
We learn later that Riff's been living with Tony for more than four years. So he's really like an adoptive brother, and he knows Tony's got his back no matter what.
There's a reason Riff's moved in with Tony's family. He jokes about it, but you don't leave home unless things are pretty bad. Riff has some insight into what makes him who he is, why he only feels at home in the gang. In "Officer Krupke," he's comically serious:
RIFF: Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand.
It's just our bringin' up-ke
That gets us outta hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all our drunks.
Golly Moses, naturally we're punks!
It's a great scene, hugely funny and playful. But Riff nails it. You could argue he's just making excuses for the Jets' behavior, but he's speaking truth to power. Lt. Schrank knows it. The Jets know it. Their lives are a mess.
Because Riff's character is so energetic and animated, his death comes as a shock. Right up until the moment that Bernardo stabs him at the rumble, we feel like things have to be all right. How can someone so full of life come to such a sudden end? Maybe because he's just from the wrong side of the tracks. No one in his neighborhood ever gets away clean.
At least he died a Jet. Like he told Tony, "Womb to tomb; birth to earth."
This isn't a movie about choosing sides. Jets and Sharks alike get to own what goes down in West Side Story. But we do admit a certain sympathy for Bernardo, who we see in the beginning as getting hassled by the Jets for no reason. He's walking along, minding his own business, and the Jets skunk him.
It ain't right.
Unfortunately, starting your own gang and evening the score probably isn't the right call either. Things get bloody and if you aren't careful, you'll get inadvertently knifed to death by your sister's new boyfriend.
So it is with Bernardo, hotheaded Puerto Rican immigrant and the unquestioned leader of the Sharks. In Romeo and Juliet terms, he most closely resembles Tybalt, the angry young man who loves to fight. Played by George Chakiris, he's smokin' hot.
We can sense Bernardo's passion from the very beginning: that seething glare that clues us in to the angry man underneath that fabulous hair. We can tell this isn't the first time he's been harassed. He's been on the receiving end of racism ever since he came to the U.S.:
RIFF: You crossed the line once too often.
BERNARDO: You started it.
RIFF: Who jumped Baby John this afternoon?
BERNARDO: Who jumped me the first day I moved here?
RIFF: Who asked you to move here? Move where you're wanted, Spics!
And check out this treatment from the cops:
LIEUTENANT SCHRANK: Good deal all around, huh, Bernardo? I get a promotion and you Puerto Ricans get what you've been itchin' for. Use of the playground, use of the gym, the streets, the candy store. So what if they do turn this whole town into a stinkin' pigsty?
Bernardo's met institutionalized racism at every turn. He knows that Tony's father is Polish but he's still considered an American. Why not them? He's not impressed with the America that Maria and Anita love. He says they came to America "Like children, believing, trusting," but Anita's tired of hearing his constant complaining. They spar during a mad song-and-dance number:
ANITA: Buying on credit is so nice.
BERNARDO: One look at us and they charge twice.
ANITA: Lots of new housing with more space.
BERNARDO: Lots of doors slamming in our face!
ANITA: I'll get a terrace apartment.
BERNARDO: Better get rid of your accent!
No wonder he's constantly defensive and on guard. It's interesting to think about why the Anita and the other women are happier in America than Bernardo and the guys. Maybe it's because, as men in 1950s America, they feel more pressure to be strong and respected providers. When they're treated as second-class citizens, it's completely humiliating.
Bernardo's very protective of his family, which gives him a stake in the gang war that goes beyond hate. He wants to keep his little sister Maria safe, to the point where he's decided who she's going to marry. And it's not going to be that Polack Tony. He sets her up with Chino, one of "her own kind," as Anita puts it.
Maria, of course, has her own ideas about who to fall in love with, and in his efforts to prevent her from falling in love, Bernardo actually seems to push Maria and Tony closer. When Tony tries to have a relationship with him, he wants no part of it. He's blinded by hate.
Forced to defend his pride and his manhood, Bernardo agrees to a fair fight with Ice, but he really wants Tony. When things get out of hand, and Riff's killed defending Tony, Bernardo's the next victim of hate.
If Maria succeeds in fighting back the forces of hate, Anita can't quite manage it. She loves Bernardo as much as Maria loves Tony, and her desire is just as strong as Maria's. But it hasn't sprung up overnight. She and Bernardo have been together for quite a while, and their passion has only grown. She's a sultry young woman, and he's all she can think about. Listen to her singing while getting dressed just before the rumble, when things are getting heavy.
ANITA: Anita's gonna get her kicks
We'll have our private little mix
He'll walk in hot and tired,
Don't matter if he's tired,
As long as he's here
Girl wants it bad.
Fun fact: The stage version had this lyric, which was cleaned up a bit for the film:
ANITA: He'll walk in hot and tired,
Don't matter if he's tired
As long as he's hot.
Even though Bernardo's the leader of the Sharks, and Anita adores him, she's no submissive gangster's moll. She feels free to tease Bernardo about his constant complaining about America: she knows every word by heart:
ANITA: Here comes the whole commercial.
(imitating Bernardo) Your mother's a Pole.
Your father's a Swede.
But you were born here.
That's all that you need.
You are an American. But us?
Foreigners! Lice! Cockroaches!
BERNARDO: But it's true!
ANITA: Sometimes I don't which is thicker—your skull or your accent!
Anita isn't into Bernardo's "us vs. them" approach to life. She even defends Tony:
BERNARDO: They use Maria for an excuse to start World War III. It is more than that.
ANITA: More than what? She was only dancing.
BERNARDO: With an American, who is really a Polack.
ANITA: Says the spic.
BERNARDO: You are not so cute.
ANITA: That Tony is…and he works!
BERNARDO: A delivery boy.
ANITA: And what are you?
Everything changes after Bernardo dies. She's ready for revenge, but Maria's pleas move her to sympathy. She agrees to deliver a message to Tony that Maria will meet him later at Doc's. But that sympathy evaporates when the try to rape her as she tries to deliver her message. Furious, she tells them instead to tell Tony that Maria is dead. This lie ends up getting Tony killed.
ANITA: Don't you touch me! I got a message for your American buddy. You tell that murderer that Maria's never going to meet him. You tell him that Chino found out about them and shot her. She's dead.
Unlike Anita, Maria doesn't actually pull the trigger to spread the hate and vengeance, even though she's grieving just as bad. That makes Anita a nice contrast to our heroine: showing what horrible things she could have done and chose not to. Anita, on the other hand, has to share some of the responsibility for what happened. She started out completely out of it, but in the end, there's blood on her hands too.
Doc runs the soda shop where Tony works and the Jets hang out. Like a lot of grown-ups in this film, he's pretty…helpless. The Jets walk all over him, he scuttles away whenever violence is threatened, and even Tony—who appreciates the faith Doc puts in him—is free to ignore the old man's advice.
Doc's aware of this, and seems to have accepted it with a certain amount of grace… and even humor, as when Lt. Schrank busts his chops about it.
LIEUTENANT SCHRANK: Do you mind?
DOC: I have no mind. I am the village idiot.
Doc's self-effacing, but he also kind of means it, knowing how little his words actually sink in. At the same time, his helplessness comes with a lot of hard-won wisdom and cynicism, and he's the only adult in the whole movie who actually seems to care about whether these kids kill each other or not.
Doc gives ex-gang leader Tony a shot at a better life, and Tony works hard for him. There's a father-son vibe in their relationship, and he tries to warn Tony away from trouble. He also tries to warn him against falling in love with Maria; he sees how complicated and dangerous that could be. Like everything else, his words fall on deaf ears.
DOC: Tony, things aren't tough enough?
TONY: Tough? Doc, I'm in love!
DOC: And you're not frightened?
TONY: Should I be?
DOC: No. I'm frightened enough for both of us.
Tony comes to Doc after he kills Bernardo, and Doc scrapes up some money to help him and Maria get out of town. And after Anita tells him (falsely) that Maria's dead, his heart sinks:
DOC: When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy.
Doc's the one to have to break the bad news to Tony:
TONY: You're a pal! You're the best friend a guy ever had. I'll pay you back as soon as l can, l promise.
DOC: Forget that.
TONY: Never. l couldn't. Doc, you know what we're gonna do in the country, Maria and me? We're gonna have lots of kids, and we're gonna name 'em after ya. That way, when you come to visit us—
DOC: (Slaps Tony) Wake up! Is this the only way to get through to you? Fight like all you kids do? Bust like a hot water pipe
TONY: What's got into you?
DOC: Why do you kids live like there's a war on? Why do you kill?
TONY: I told you how it happened. Maria understands. I thought you did, too.
DOC: Maria understands nothing. Never again. There is no Maria. I…can't—
TONY: No, Doc. Tell me!
You can see how it kills Doc to have to tell Tony his beloved Maria is dead. He's a supremely decent guy, and Tony's devotion to Maria seems to have almost convinced him that things might go right in some small corner of this terribly wrong world.
But in the end, his cynicism's borne out and Tony's hope is crushed.
Continuing our Romeo and Juliet comparisons, we come at last to the prince of Verona, who, let's face it, is the voice of authority and therefore the Man. In 1950s New York, the Man is represented by the cops: in this case, Lt. Schrank and his rotund accomplice Officer Krupke.
We don't see a whole lot of them, despite a whole song being sung about one of them, but we can pick up their vibes pretty quickly. They don't like the Sharks or the Jets, but frankly, they can't be bothered to really straighten the punks out. They're tired of trying, it seems, and while they show up to roust the gangs from time to time, their heart really isn't in actually doing something that will solve the problem.
Instead, they provide a hot plate of Hassle for Jets and Sharks alike. They show up, roust them, bust their chops a little and let them get back to whatever it is they're doing. The question becomes why? Why do these guys spend so much time giving these guys grief without actually doing anything? Why not just leave them to kill each other?
There's a lot of answers, and again, with "Gee, Officer Krupke," you can hear how pointless they all are. The song has the Jets comically describing how they've bounced around from one court and social program to another. None of those institutions work and all of them just want to wash their hands of these no-good street punks and send them off to the next waiting professional: psychiatrist, social worker, or judge.
SNOWBOY: The trouble is he's lazy.
JOYBOY: The trouble is he drinks!
BABY JOHN: The trouble is he's crazy!
A-RAB: The trouble is he stinks!
MOUTHPIECE: The trouble is he's growing.
ACTION: The trouble is he's grown!
ALL: Krupke, we got troubles of our own!
Honestly, this song is just about the best description of the failure of the juvenile justice system we've ever heard.
Schrank and Krupke are both the representatives of this system, which brutalizes these kids to no noticeable effects. The kids know this, which means they're not inclined to give either of these certified authorities a shred of respect or the time of day.
Schrank and Krupke, for their part, seem to understand that there's only so much they can do, either to help these kids or stop whatever they want to do. But they're still frustrated at them, which spills over into flat-out rage more than once.
LT. SCHRANK: I said nice, get it? Because if you don't, and I catch any of you doing any more brawlin' in my territory, I'm gonna personally beat the living crud out of each and every one of you and see that you go to the can and rot there. Say goodbye to the nice boys, Krupke.
That sure keeps things status quo: unchanging, frustrating and ultimately destructive.
It goes deeper than that. Schrank and Krupke push the gangs around in part to keep them in line, but mostly to remind them how little actual power they actually have. They're little fish in the big, bad world, and Schrank wants to make sure they understand that. He doesn't exactly give it to them easy either:
LT. SCHRANK: Sure it's a free country and I ain't got the right. But I got a badge. What have you got?
In one line, the Man reminds them that he can crush them all like tiny little bugs anytime he wants. He doesn't do it because they're honestly not worth the trouble. It's an awful thing to say, but it's also true, and it reminds us why the Jets and the Sharks are both pretty angry about life in general.
The cops don't have much love for the Jets or the Sharks, but they've got special scorn for the Puerto Rican gang.
LT. SCHRANK: Good deal all around, huh, Bernardo? I get a promotion and you Puerto Ricans get what you've been itchin' for. Use of the playground, use of the gym…the streets, the candy store. So what if they do turn this whole town into a stinkin' pigsty?
What a sweetheart. To his credit, though, he's an equal opportunity hater. The following is directed at the Jets:
LT. SCHRANK: You and the tinhorn immigrant scum you come from! How's your old man's DTs., A-rab? How's the action on your mother's side of the street, Action?
The only shred of humanity we see in Schrank is his look of despair when he comes across the scene at the playground, with Tony lying dead and Maria crushed by grief. Clearly, the hate is destroying everybody around here.
Ice is Riff's second in command, the one chosen to fight Bernardo at the big rumble and who takes over command of the Jets when Riff gets killed. There's not much to him, really. Just another face in a gang full of faces. But he's the guy who holds the Jets together after Riff is killed. At the beginning of "Cool," when everyone is going nuts, Ice is there to lay down the word.
ICE: You wanna live in this lousy world? You play it cool.
It's a key moment, in part because it keeps the hate and need for revenge alive. But it also keeps the Jets together, and ensures that they stay together until the bitter end. In that sense, he's a good lieutenant, doing what Riff would want him to do and fighting to hold onto whatever it was Riff thought he was dying for.