Last week I saw the classic musical "West Side Story" at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein, the soundtrack by itself would be wonderful. But it is the Romeo-and-Juliet-like story that makes this musical so powerful. I found myself wondering afterwards, where did the two lovers - Tony and Maria - go wrong?
Just to recap, "West Side Story" is set in an area of New York City where immigrants from Poland and from Puerto Rico have settled. The youth from these two ethnic communities form rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Tony is Polish; Maria is Puerto Rican: they meet and fall in love. The two gangs fight. Tony is involved. The leader of the Polish gang is killed, and Tony takes revenge by killing the leader of the Puerto Rican gang - who happens to be Maria's brother. In the sad, tragic conclusion, Tony is killed in an act of revenge, Maria steps in and says, "Enough," and this cycle of violence is ended. It is a powerful story.
Where did Tony go wrong? He found his identify in belonging to the gang. The psychologist Abraham Maslow said that one of the fundamental human needs is to have a sense of belonging. In the musical, the gang is the family. As Tony is being recruited for the rumble (the fight), the Jet leader, Riff, sings this song. "When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette, to your last dyin' day. When you're a Jet, if the spit hits the fan, you got brothers around, you're a family man! You're never alone, you're never disconnected! You're home with your own: when company's expected, you're well protected!"
In West Side Story, the gangs become a family; the gang has its own set of rules ("eye for an eye"); and the gang members keep the rules. Tony seems the exception, but in the heat of the battle his gang morality outweighed his loyalty to Maria.