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Romeo and Tony - A West Side Story Question

Posted by:  Kimmel Center on April 02, 2012

For school, I’m doing a research project on the differences and similarities of the character Tony from West Side Story and Romeo from Romeo and Juliet. I was just wondering, if anyone working in the show would like to tell me their take on that (How are the two characters alike and different?). Thank you so much, have a great day! -Hannah

Drew Foster - who plays Riff in the national tour of West Side Story (and is a bit of a Shakespeare expert) offered this response to Hannah, a student. She is well on her way to an A+!

The first and most striking difference we find between Romeo and Tony is their socio-economic backgrounds. Romeo Montague is the son (and by all accounts the only son) of one of the most rich and powerful families in the city of Verona. Tony is the son of Polish immigrants, one of whom goes to night school. We can imagine his abject poverty as he’s helped start a gang with his best friend in order to have familial ties. Which also leads to the 2nd most striking difference, the roles in their own families that they abandon for love. Tony is a leading figure of the Jet gang. Riff feels they cannot beat the Sharks without him, whether it be is his cunning, experience, or muscle. Romeo is the leader of nothing. His major role is his father’s heir. All important yes, but not immediately active. 

Romeo and Tony are noticeably absent from the opening brawls of their respective plays. Tony’s absence has been much longer; Action claims Tony “hasn’t been with them for a month.” Romeo’s absence has from the family is more figurative. “Many a morning hath he there been seen/with tears augmenting to the fresh mornings dew/adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs.” And although both are having dreams and sleepless nights, Romeo can name what ‘lenghtens his hours’ far better than Tony. Romeo believes he is in love with a girl named Rosaline Capulet. Both are approached by their best friends to learn the cause of their uncharacteristic behavior “Tut, I have lost myself; I am not here/this is not romeo, he is some other where” “4 and ½ years I live with a buddy and his family, 4 and ½ years I think I know a mans character.” Romeo and Tony both struggle to explain their struggles. Romeo is twisted into babbling Petrarchian oxymora in order to explain his love to his best friend and confidant Benvolio, whereas Tony’s explainations to his friend Riff are more optimistic.

“I don’t know what it is, but it is, gonna be great,” they’re equally unsatisfying “Riff: Tell me Tony: I don’t know it’s like the kick I used to get from being a Jet.” (Compare romeo’s short monologue at line 1.4.104 to Tony/Maria’s conversation after the chacha “I knew something never before was going to happen had to happen”) These two scenes also set up another difference at the top of their respective plays. Romeo’s absence is cause by his attraction to Rosaline, he’s being pulled from his friends and family. In contrast, Tony’s efforts are to separate himself, to push his former life as a gang member away, “go play nice with the Jets… Riff I’ve had it.”

When Tony and Romeo meet the loves of their short lives, they both respond in a way that they never do for the rest of the play. Romeo and Juliet share a sonnet (14 lines of blank verse in the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg) and Tony and Maria dance. If you compare specifically the movie of West Side with the play, they also play similarly with Juliet/Maria standing out in the room. “So shows a snowy dove trouping with crows…. It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear.” In the west side movie, the rest of the dancers are blurred out and only Maria stays in focus. Romeo’s sonnet with Juliet focuses much on Juliet’s hands, as Tony and Maria often find themselves discussing each others hands (both possible choices to make an excuse to touch one another). When they learn of the other’s familial association Romeo is scriptually much more concerned “my life is my foe’s debt” and so forth. Tony sings a rumba, and claims that her father will like him!

I could go on, but I think I’d be writing your whole paper!!! Hopefully this will give you a big start, and an idea of what to look for. Remember to look beyond the lines and into their circumstances. Arthur Laurents did a beautiful job of pulling so much from Romeo and Juliet, but deftly changed many story points in order to tell his musical version of street gangs. Best of luck with your project! 


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