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.
The Idealist: Gonna be Alright, Alright
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.
He Just Met a Girl Named Maria
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 Idealist 2.0
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.
Deprived But Not Depraved
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."