Episode: Bernstein's air-conditioned urban jungle


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Bernstein's air-conditioned urban jungle
If you were in Washington, D.C. on today's date in 1957, and wanted to escape the summer heat, tickets for a new musical at the air-conditioned National Theater would run you between $1.10 and $5.50 — and you could boast for years afterwards that you attended the world premiere performance of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." Actually, the three-week trial run of "West Side Story" at DC's National Theater was a hot ticket. The premiere attracted a fashionable crowd of Washington elite as well as those who trained or planed their way to the national's capitol to catch the latest work of America's musical "boy wonder" — the 38-year old Leonard Bernstein. Even so, The Washington Post reported Bernstein was able to wander the lobby at intermission largely unrecognized — to eavesdrop on audience reaction. One woman who did recognize him identified herself as a former social worker in a rough neighborhood like the one depicted in his musical. "It's all so real, so true," she told Bernstein. "It chills my blood to remember." Bernstein was a little taken aback. "It isn't meant to be realistic," he said. "Poetry — Poetry set to music — that's what we were trying to do." But gang violence as the subject for a musical was shocking to 1957 audiences. When the show opened on Broadway, the New York "Times" expressed its impact as follows: "Although the material is horrifying, the workmanship is admirable… 'West Side Story' is a profoundly moving show."

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