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The song is used to show anticipation to the coming night, which will end up being the climactic part of the play. The "Tonight Quintet" is sung in five parts: the Jets, the Sharks, Tony, Maria, and Anita. The song begins with the parts sung in turn, and then overlapping and building to the final line, "Tonight," sung by the ensemble with multiple harmonies.
The Jets and the Sharks are rival gangs anticipating the "rumble" which will settle a territorial feud that has been brewing between them for some time now. Both groups are confident that the fight will end in their favour.
Anita sings of her anticipation for her boyfriend, Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, to return after the rumble. She knows that he is usually riled up after a fight like this and she looks forward to having some intimate time together and "getting her kicks."
Tony, a member of the Jets, has fallen in love with Maria, Bernardo's sister. Upon Maria's request, he plans to go to the rumble and stop the fight. Maria and Tony sing about their eagerness to see each other after Tony returns; they believe that after Tony stops the fight, the tension surrounding their forbidden love will finally vanish and the night will be "endless." They are frustrated by the seemingly slow place of the present day while they are anticipating the coming night.
In the 1961 film version of West Side Story, the lyrics to this song are changed. Instead of Anita singing "He'll walk in hot and tired, so what / No matter if he's tired, as long as he's hot," she instead sings "He'll walk in hot and tired, poor dear / No matter if he's tired, as long as he's here."
Part of the song was parodied in a promo to the 2005 WWE Royal Rumble event where the Superstars from Raw and Smackdown gather for a rumble until Vince McMahon wakes up from the dream sequence and says that's not the rumble he had in mind.