It's summer in the city.
After owning their miserable little neighborhood for years, the Jets, the finger-snapping street gang led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), find themselves in a turf war with the upstart Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Riff plans to challenge the Sharks to a rumble at a neighborhood dance and asks his old buddy Tony (Richard Beymer) to come along.
Tony's out of the game—he got a job—even though he founded the Jets with Riff, but he agrees to come along to help his friend out. Tony's been feeling lately like something great is gonna happen to him.
He's not sure what it is, but it's just around the corner.
When Tony arrives at the dance, he spots a girl who literally makes the rest of the world fall away and causes him to burst into song. Her name is Maria (Natalie Wood) and he croons it to us just in case we didn't get it the first time. Just one problem: she's Bernardo's sister, and he's very protective of her. He's even picked out her boyfriend: Chino, one of his Sharks.
Bernardo warns Maria to stay away from Tony. Meanwhile, Bernardo has a war council to set up the rumble. He and Riff agree to meet at Doc's drugstore, where Tony works, to hash out the rules. (Apparently, you need rules for a rumble, instead of just cutting to the chase and trying to kill the other guys any way you can.)
Afterwards, Bernardo and the Sharks retire to the rooftops, where his girl Anita (Rita Moreno) chides him for being too strict with Maria. The boys and the girls sing about the good bad things about life in America.
Tony meets Maria on the fire escape outside her building, and they confirm what we all suspected: they've got it for each other bad. They know they're on opposite sides of this fight, but they don't care.
Love will do that to you.
The Jets wait at Doc's for the war council, and mock the local symbol of authority Officer Krupke (William Brimley) when he shows up to hassle them. When the Sharks arrive, the rules for the rumble are hashed out with Tony's help. Bernardo and Riff's right-hand man Ice (Tucker Smith) will fight with their fists: winner take all.
Once the other gang members leave, Tony moons at Doc (Ned Glass) about how over the moon he is about Maria. Doc disapproves; he can see the trouble all this could cause
The next morning, Maria sings to her friends in the bridal shop where she works about how wonderful it is to be in love. Anita tells her about the rumble, and when Tony arrives to see Maria, she warns them both that Bernardo will have a furious fit if he catches them together. Tony promises to stop the rumble and make everything right. Afterwards, he and Maria enact a wedding among the mannequins in the bridal shop.
It's much less creepy and much more tear-jerking than it sounds. We swear.
The next evening, the rumble's on. It's only supposed to be Bernardo and Ice using their fists, but when Tony arrives to stop it, things escalate. Badly. Bernardo stabs Riff and kills him, then Tony, in a fit of rage, stabs and kills Bernardo. The cops arrive, everyone splits and yowza has this situation gotten out of hand in a great big hurry.
Bernardo's friend Chino (Jose DeVega) tells Maria what's happened and she's horrified. Because… yeah… your new boyfriend just stabbed your brother to death. Tony shows up and asks her to forgive him. He's ready to go to the cops and confess, but she convinces him not to.
Aaand they sing about the hopelessness of their love.
Give Shmoop a minute while we pull ourselves together…
Meanwhile, the Jets are ready for blood; Ice tells them to be cool. Chino gets his hands on a gun, and he's looking to settle the score with Tony.
Tony and Maria plan to run away, because seriously, getting shot is not part of the plan. But Anita, heartbroken by Bernardo's death, tells Maria that she needs to forget Tony. Maria insists that Tony isn't a hateful person and that Bernardo's death was an accident. Persuaded by Maria's profession of love for Tony, Anita agrees to sneak off and tell him that Maria will meet him at Doc's where they can escape the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this is a very bad idea. After almost getting raped by the Jets, a furious Anita instead tells Doc that Chino killed Maria in a fit of jealous rage.
When Tony hears that Maria's dead, he charges out into the night in despair, calling for Chino to kill him, too. Then he spots Maria, not dead after all. As he rushes to her, Chino shoots him.
The Jets and the Sharks arrive as Tony dies, cradled in Maria's arms with the two quietly singing to each other about the "Somewhere" they hoped to find. Maria picks up Chino's gun and blames both sides for the hate and violence that seems to have wiped out a significant chunk of the cast. A group of Jets and Sharks pick Tony up together and carry him away as the police take Chino into custody.
And just like that, the Montagues and Capulets—sorry, we mean the Sharks and the Jets—end their feud and solve the problem of gangs and gun violence in New York City forever.