A fight set to music between an American gang, the Jets, and a rival gang, the Sharks, who have moved into the Jets' territory from Puerto Rico. We are introduced to the leader of the Jets, Riff (Russ Tamblyn
), and the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (George Chakiris
). The Sharks start the fight when they jump Baby John, one of the most developed characters.
The police arrive, led by Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland
) and Officer Krumpke (William Bramley
), and demands that the gang disperse.
When they are alone, the Jets begin to discuss what they will do about the Sharks. Riff declares that they will end the conflict on their terms by challenging the Sharks to one last all out fight, or "rumble". they deliver the challenge to the Sharks at the dance being held that night at the local gym, which is considered neutral territory. Action (Tony Mordente
) asks to be Riff's lieutenant for the challenge and council, but the Jets leader insists on using Tony (Richard Beymer
), Riff's best friend, and co-founder of the Jets. Tony has since begun to drift away from the gang, and the Jets think he doesn't belong any more. Riff tells them firmly that once you're a Jet, you stay a Jet and reassures them of their invincibility before going off to find his friend ("Jet Song"). Riff meets Tony, who now has a job at a local store run by a man named Doc (Ned Glass
), and tries to persuade him to come to the dance at the gym that night. Having no real interest in the Jets' conflict with the Sharks, Tony initially refuses and tries to explain to Riff that lately he expects something very important will be coming into his life, but later reconsiders out of loyalty, when he thinks about what might happen there ("Something's Coming").
We are then introduced to Bernardo's sister, Maria (Natalie Wood
). She is complaining to Bernardo's feisty ladyfriend, Anita (Rita Moreno
), that she never gets to do anything exciting. Bernardo arrives and takes her to the dance, where she meets some friends, Rosalia and Consuelo. Bernardo meets up with his friends. The Jets meet, and a dance montage takes place ("Dance At The Gym"). Glad Hand (John Astin
), the chaperon at the dance, tries to make the gangs mix with a get-together dance, but when he is not looking, the boys swap back to their original partners.
In the midst of all the excitement, Tony and Maria see each other, and immediately fall in love. They begin to dance, but are interrupted by Bernardo, who angrily orders Maria home, and tells Tony to stay away from his sister. Tony leaves in a happy daze ("Maria") while Riff invites Bernardo to the "war council", for which they agree to meet at Doc's Candy Store.
Back at the Sharks' tenement building, Anita defends Maria's right to dance with whom she pleases, as do the other girls, but Bernardo will not listen. A bitter argument ensues, in which it emerges that the girls love their life in America while the boys hate it ("America").
Tony visits Maria at her tenement block, mirroring the balcony scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and they confirm their love ("Tonight"). They arrange to meet the next day at Madame Lucia's bridal shop, when Maria has finished her work. The same night, after the dance, the Jets and Sharks meet to decide where their planned rumble will take place. Before the Sharks arrive, the Jets, accompanied by Anybodys (Susan Oakes
), a tomboy who desperately wants to be one of them, are visited by Officer Krupke, who warns them not to cause trouble on his beat. When he leaves, they lampoon him, along with judges, psychiatrists and social workers ("Gee, Officer Krupke"). Tony bursts in while the Jets and Sharks are in conference, and demands that they have a fair fist fight instead of a rumble. Riff agrees, and Bernardo reluctantly accepts.
The next day, Maria and her friends are working at the bridal shop, and Maria is in an unusually happy mood. The other girls wonder what has come over her, and Maria explains ("I Feel Pretty"). Tony arrives. Everyone except Maria and Anita has left. Anita likes the couple, but is clearly afraid of what might happen if Bernardo knows they are seeing each other. She demands that Maria be home soon, then goes home to pretty herself up -- she and Bernardo have arranged to have a little quality time after the Rumble. Maria demands that Tony stop the fight altogether, but before Tony leaves, they pretend that the bridal clothes in the shop are for them, and imagine their engagement and wedding ("One Hand, One Heart").
Next is a musical montage showing everyone's respective feelings. The Jets and Sharks are ready in case the fight becomes a rumble after all, Tony and Maria are looking forward to seeing each other that night, and Anita is getting ready for her date with Bernardo ("Quintet").
The fight, which is between Bernardo and Ice (Tucker Smith
), Riff's second in command, is about to begin when Tony appears. When Tony tries to stop the fight, Bernardo attacks him. When Tony does not retaliate, the Sharks mock him. Unable to stand by and watch while his best friend is mocked and humiliated, Riff punches Bernardo, trying to defend Tony, and the two gang leaders draw their switchblades ("The Rumble"). Tony tries to stop Riff, but Ice and Tiger hold him back. In the midst of the fight, Bernardo kills Riff. Before the stunned members of both gangs can react, Tony, enraged at the murder of his best friend, picks up Riff's blade and stabs Bernardo, killing him instantly. This sets off a free-for-all amidst the gang members. As police sirens start blaring in the distance, everybody takes off, leaving behind the bodies of Riff and Bernardo.
Blissfully unaware of what has happened, Maria is waiting for Tony on the tenement roof. She is still in a gay mood, and dances around the roof, until another Shark, Chino (Jose De Vega
), who loves her, appears, worn out from the fight. Without thinking, Maria demands to know what has happened to Tony, betraying her feelings. Angered, Chino tells Maria that Tony killed her brother, then leaves. Tony arrives as Maria prays that Bernardo is not dead; realizing that it's true, Maria lashes out at Tony, who can only tell her what happened, and asks her to forgive him before he goes to the police. Maria finds that in spite of everything, she still loves Tony and begs him to stay with her. They reaffirm their love ("Somewhere").
Ice has taken over as leader of the Jets. He tells them they will have their revenge on the Sharks, but must do it carefully ("Cool"). Anybodys appears from infiltrating the Sharks' turf and warns the Jets that Chino is now after Tony with a gun. The Jets scatter out to find Tony, including Anybodys, whose deed officially makes her a Jet.
Back at the flat, Tony and Maria are sleeping together. Anita arrives. Maria and Tony make whispered arrangements to meet at Doc's and run away together. Anita comes in, sees Tony running away (and being informed of Chino by Anybodys), and chides Maria for loving him ("A Boy Like That"). Maria will not listen, and Anita looks as though she has to restrain herself from hitting her. But Maria's heartfelt love ("I Have A Love") wins over Anita, for she remembers she felt the same way about Bernardo. Anita then tells Maria about Chino searching for Tony with a gun.
Lieutenant Schrank arrives and questions Maria about the events leading up to the Rumble. He knows about the argument, and Maria lies that the boy she danced with was another Puerto Rican. She sends Anita to Doc's on the pretense that she is sending her to fetch a medicine for her headache -- she asks Anita to say she has been detained, explaining she would have gone herself otherwise. Anita's real purpose is to tell Tony (who has now taken refuge in the cellar of Doc's drugstore) that Maria is detained from meeting him.
But when Anita enters Doc's, the Jets maul her, simulating a gang rape. In black anger, Anita delivers the wrong message -- she says Maria is dead, shot by Chino for loving Tony. When Doc breaks the news to Tony, he leaves the shop in despair. Tony then runs through the streets shouting for Chino and begging him to kill him too.
Wandering onto the playground, he sees Maria, at first thinking that it is only in his mind, then realizing it really is her, but as they run towards each other, Chino appears out of nowhere and shoots Tony. As the Jets and Sharks appear, Maria and Tony reaffirm their love ("Somewhere"), but Tony dies in her arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and accuses everybody in sight of the deaths of Tony, Bernardo, and Riff. The police and gang members arrive. When they see Tony dead, some of the Jets lift him, and the Sharks join them, while Chino is taken away by the police. As in Romeo and Juliet, tragedy has brought the feuding between the two gangs to an end.
Romeo and Juliet equivalents
Tony=Romeo, Maria=Juliet, Bernardo=Tybalt, Riff=Mercutio, Doc=Friar Lawrence, Chino=Paris, Anita=Nurse,