Side Show belongs to a handful of emotionally intense, very dark musicals from the late 1990s (i.e. Parade, Floyd Collins, both versions of The Wild Party) that flopped in New York but went on to be embraced by college campuses, adventurous regional theater companies, and teenage girls who identified emotionally with Daisy and Violet and embrace their high-powered duets (Elphaba and Glinda wouldn’t come along for another six years).
It depicts the real-life Hilton sisters, conjoined twins who started out as carnival freaks but went on to become vaudeville stars in the 1930s, though by the end of their fluctuating lives they were reduced to working in a supermarket. They are probably best remembered for having cameos in Tod Browning’s pre-Production Code 1932 film Freaks. (Browning has a cameo in Side Show, arriving at the end like a deus ex machina to resolve the plot.) Henry Krieger, composer of Dreamgirls, combined creepy tones with sweeping pop melodies. Bill Russell’s lyrics may be downright pedestrian, and at times sort of juvenile, but they are dramatically effective. (Can you imagine what Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine might have done with the subject back in their prime?)
Robert Longbottom’s original Broadway production was especially spare. It began the cast on bleachers, uncomfortably eying the audience, and then starting with the particularly ominous, repeated lyric, “Come look at the freaks.” Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, then unknown, came together from opposite ends of the stage and proceeded to stay side by side for the next two hours as Violet and Daisy. The original cast also included Norm Lewis (in his first major role), Ken Jennings, Hugh Panaro and Jeff McCarthy.
Looking back today, it’s hard to believe that Side Show was produced commercially on Broadway. Given its subject matter and tone, it’s no surprise that it failed to catch on, lasting just 91 performances. Plus, theater audiences were distracted at the time. By the time it closed, The Lion King had opened and Ragtime was in previews.
A few years ago, it was announced that Krieger and Russell would extensively revise Side Show for a revival to be staged by Bill Condon, best known as the director of the films Dreamgirls and Gods and Monsters. After regional runs at La Jolla Playhouse (where the reviews were unenthusiastic) and the Kennedy Center (where the reviews were raves), Condon’s high-profile production has arrived on Broadway, giving Side Show a much deserved second shot at success.
I must confess that I, like many other theater geeks who came of age when the show premiered, grew to love the original version of Side Show, which was essentially an Andrew Lloyd Webber-style pop opera with little dialogue, and I have very mixed feelings about the revisions. (Condon is now credited as a co-writer of the new book, which adds plenty of dialogue and cuts all the recitative.)
Although the best parts of Side Show have not been touched (including virtually all of act two), the new dialogue and songs and added backstory (a 10-minute flashback sequence has been unnecessarily planted into the middle of act one) do not make the show any more effective. If anything, they take away from its sense of momentum.
But at least visually, Condon’s revival is a stunning achievement. Unlike the original staging, which was purposely minimalistic and light on design elements, the new Side Show is ultra-elaborate and realistic when it comes to depicting the so-called freaks. Since when has there been a musical revival that was more elaborate than the original production?
If the new cast doesn’t quite measure up to their predecessors, they generally deliver solid performances. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett credibly portray the twins and convey their conflicted emotions. Ryan Silverman (a longtime Raoul in Phantom of the Opera) brings a dashing quality to Terry, the savvy but sleazy showman who can foresee Violet and Daisy’s potential.
The question now isn’t whether Side Show is going to become a Broadway smash. It won’t be, and it can be assumed that the people producing it are well aware of that. Side Show has returned to Broadway because there were enough people who believe in the show and have been touched by its loud, proud emotionalism to make it happen. Its return to Broadway, the place where audiences shrugged their shoulders at it back in 1997, is the real accomplishment. Perhaps Jason Robert Brown’s Parade (which was revived in London in a revised form under Rob Ashford’s direction) will follow suit.