‘Side Show’ is Back, Bigger Than Ever
Once upon a time, say, Oct. 16, 1997, a musical opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.
This is not news today, nor was it then. Musicals open on Broadway all the time, some to move on to glory and musical memories everlasting, and some to exit street left, never to be heard from again.
The musical in question was called “Side Show,” with a book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger of “Dreamgirls” fame. It was a show about the life and times of Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined (“Siamese”) twins who were sideshow (“carny”) attractions and even bigger vaudeville stars.
Directed by Robert Longbottom, it featured Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner as the sisters and received Tony Award nominations for best musical, best book, best music and best acting in a musical (Ripley and Skinner for one role).
But 91 days after it opened, “Side Show” was gone. Over the years, it became something of a legend, a theatrical rumor about remembered magical moments.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” said Bill Russell when we sat down and talked with him. “It was a lot of things, I suppose. I think a lot of people thought the show would sell itself, and just about everybody we ever talked to who actually saw it loved it. Maybe it wasn’t marketed enough, maybe the whole idea of a musical about people who were very, very different from everybody else – and especially the twins and their attempts to find love – rubbed some people wrong.”
“Side Show,” of course, is back, bigger than ever with new characters and ten new songs added, directed by Bill Condon, the Oscar-winning director of the movie version of “Dreamgirls.” It’s a Kennedy Center production – part of the Michael Kaiser legacy of rescuing critically acclaimed shows with passionate followers such as “Ragtime” and “Follies” – in association with the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where it had a successful run.
“One thing I know, and one thing I saw, was that young people seemed to really get into this show,” Russell said. “And I’m not surprised. Thinking in terms of the characters in the show, people that were considered freaks, outsiders, and here they’re the main people in a musical and you see their yearnings and strivings to be like other people, to love and shine.
“The sisters were real people. They even played themselves in that 1930s movie ‘Freaks’ by Todd Browning. But they were never alone from each other, people always looked at them, they were different from each other.”
The production at the Kennedy Center, more of a musical drama than a musical, is by all accounts elaborate. And while it may appear larger and richer, and thick with memorable music and songs (not to mention memorable costumes and makeup) – “Here are the Freaks” still opens the show in rousing fashion – it aims straight at the hearts and emotions of the audience.
This is a show that includes not only promoters and ballyhoo folks, but the bearded lady, little people, the three-legged man, the living Venus de Milo, reptile man and, of course, the girls. Emily Padgett, a veteran of several national tours (“Rock of Ages,” “Cats” and “Legally Blonde), plays Daisy and Erin Davis (“A Little Night Music,” “Grey Gardens”) plays Violet.
Russell’s list of credits includes the long-running Off-Broadway show “Pageant,” which won two Olivier nominations for its West End production, as well as “Elegies for Angels,” “Punks and Raging Queens” and “Family Style.” But it’s probably fair to say that “Side Show” is something special for him, and not just because of the Tony nominations and the Broadway run.
“I know a little something about being an outsider,” he said. “Think about this: I was born in Deadwood and raised in a town called Spearfish in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “My father was a popular guy whom everybody called Cowboy. He was a cowboy, and here I am, coming out to him and the town newspaper as gay. He was not happy with me. He worked in rodeo, he herded cattle. Eventually we reconciled, and he got to see some of my work and I think he appreciated what I did and who I was. But it wasn’t easy.”
Fathers stay in the heart. Russell wrote poems about his father including one called “Cowboy.”
As for “Side Show,” which is in the Kennedy Center Opera House through July 13, what happens next? Broadway?
“Hard to say,” Russell said. “Sure would be great, wouldn’t it?”