The Virginia Nelson Playbills Collection – West Side Story

Hello there! Amanda here, reporting from Special Collections Research Center (SCRC.) As some of you may know, SCRC has many collecting strengths – from Transportation, local D.M.V. history, and of course, the Performing Arts, both local to the Washington D.C. Metro Area and across the country. Some highlights from our collections include the Federal Theatre Project collection and the Arena Stage records, which are large in scope and size. One smaller collection (albeit no less interesting) I had the pleasure of working with recently was the Virginia Nelson playbills collection. As an avid lover of the Performing Arts (particularly musical theater and ballet) it was a blast to acquaint myself with the collection and to improve and add to the finding aid.

As my colleagues can attest (thanks to my many squeals of delight) Virginia Nelson experienced some groundbreaking moments in Theatre, perhaps without even knowing it.

Leonard Bernstein outside the National Theatre in Washington, DC Robert H. Phillips, photographer. Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (27) Courtesy of the estate of the photographer. Source: Library of Congress.

As the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C. is home to some of the finest performance venues in the United States and across the globe. D.C. and the surrounding metro area is undoubtedly a performing arts hub, and has birthed innovative theatrical companies, from Arena Stage to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to Signature Theatre and the Folger Theatre. It’s no wonder then that some of Theatre’s greatest moments have occurred here, one of which was the premiere of West Side Story at the National Theatre – one of musical theater’s most beloved and enduring works.

Composed by the great Leonard Bernstein, lyrics and book by legendary Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, respectively, as well as choreography by the incredible Jerome Robbins of the New York City Ballet, West Side Story is a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. Featuring a bitter gang rivalry between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in New York City’s West Side during the 1950s, amidst the fray are two star-crossed lovers – Maria and Tony. The pair fall in love, are met with tragedy, and sing some of the most memorable songs in the Musical Theater canon. Before its Broadway debut, West Side Story premiered at the National Theatre in D.C. in 1957, and was met with rave reviews. Virginia Nelson was lucky enough to attend this pre-run of the show, and her playbill is present within the collection.

In the playbill itself, you can see the original West Side Story cast’s bios, including Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, and Chita Rivera. The front cover includes perhaps the most famous image from the promotional campaign taken by Friedman-Abeles*, of Maria (Lawrence) pulling Tony (Kert) along a New York City street, exuberant and in love. West Side Story would move on to premiere at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City, and was eventually adapted into a film in 1961 starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn, which brought the musical even wider attention, and is considered a classic in its own right. 

This playbill is just one example of the many performances Virginia Nelson attended over the course of the 20th century, and is a wondrous example of performing arts history, not just in Washington, D.C., but the world at large.


Photograph by Amanda Brent.

I had my own special moment with West Side Story back in June 2014, which underwent a successful Broadway revival in 2009. I was able to see the touring production at the National Theatre, and due to the theater’s history with the show, they reproduced the original production’s marquee, which I made sure to document. Needless to say, it was a magical evening.




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