The 1997 musical Side Show told the true tale of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who enjoyed a twisted run in the spotlight when they joined a circus act during the 1920s and 1930s.
Despite their success, though — which included performing with Bob Hope and appearing in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic film Freaks — the sisters longed for more personal fulfillment and romantic relationships made difficult by their affliction.
Side Show made quite a splash during its original run. It received four Tony nominations, making history in the process by earning a dual nomination for co-leads Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, the original Violet and Daisy (these roles are currently played by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett). In the intervening years, the musical has become a part of Broadway lore. Passionate followers have kept this tale — and its beautiful score, courtesy of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell — alive, performing numbers in cabaret halls and audition rooms alike.
And now the timing seems to be right for Side Show to get a second chance at life. After out-of-town runs at the Old Globe Theatre and the Kennedy Center, the show is about to enjoy its first revival when it opens at the St. James Theatre on Monday, November 17. Bill Condon, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Gods and Monsters and director of the film version of Dreamgirls, makes his Broadway debut at the helm.
Russell, also the show’s book writer, is quick to emphasize how well this new rendition fits in with the cultural tide. “Not only is there a whole ‘freak show’ element in the zeitgeist, with American Horror Story and Bradley Cooper doing The Elephant Man, but I also think the culture has progressed so much from where it was 17 years ago,” he explains.
Condon has worked with Krieger and Russell to drastically update this Side Show, melding glamor with the grotesque. “Bill had a very specific vision for bringing it back to Broadway,” Russell explains. “Audiences are so much more adventurous and open to exploring this kind of subject matter than they were in 1997. And also, there has been a huge wave of wildly successful stories with female protagonists and sisters as the central characters.” Surgical updates on the show include a first-act flashback sequence to the Hiltons’ childhood and an effort to strengthen the male characters in the show as well. “We focused a lot on making the story stronger,” says Russell. “There isn’t a syllable or note in the show that hasn’t been completely reexamined.”
Other changes have been made to shine a greater light on some of the other performers on the periphery of Daisy and Violet’s world. This includes incorporating Browning himself as a character, and also paying greater detail to some of the other “freaks” seen onstage, who both amplify the alienation felt by the Hilton sisters and also strike a chord with a larger sensibility in today’s society.
In accordance with Condon’s aim for realism, many of the freaks are based on real members of the freak show. Dog Boy, played by Javier Ignacio, is based on a real attraction named Jojo the Dog Boy; Living Venus De Milo (Lauren Elder) was inspired by an armless circus attraction. However, all of the freak-show members — who also include Female and Male Cossack (Jordanna James and Josh Walker), Half Man/Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh), Lizard Man (Don Richard), Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), the Bearded Lady (Blair Ross), and Fortune Teller (Charity Angel Dawson) — can claim historical verisimilitude. “We didn’t make any one up,” Russell says. “If they aren’t directly based on a historical figure, they at least resemble one.”
Condon employed the expertise of makeup specialists Dave and Lou Elsey, Academy Award winners for The Wolfman who also recently worked with the director to age Ian McKellen to a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the upcoming Mr. Holmes. “The original production was minimal and abstract; they are much more realistic and fully realized in this production,” Russell says.
Side Show’s decorated creative staff performed a thorough reconnaissance mission, utilizing multiple media sources to resurrect this era. “There was a tremendous amount of research done on sideshows and carneys of the period, late 1920s and 1930s,” explains Paul Tazewell, the show’s Tony-nominated costume designer (In the Heights, Memphis). “The photos of people of the Dust Bowl and other character-filled photos of street scenes were a great influence for me to follow. There is an abundance of images of amazing characters within the world of sideshows that I was inspired by and that influenced how I interpreted what Bill was asking for.”
Makeup artist Cookie Jordan (After Midnight, The Pee-Wee Herman Show) also consulted similar sources from the past. “Since the freaks are based on real-life people, it was very easy to get photos and find out about their lives,” she says, adding that she examined photos of other carnival workers during the Depression era. She also confirmed that the two freaks who take the longest in the makeup chair are Human Pin Cushion (Barrett Martin) and the Tattoo Girl (Hannah Shankman), at 30 minutes each.
Despite the hard work involved in telling such a serious story, the cast and crew of Side Show still managed to have some fun. Both Jordan and Tazewell joke that the behind-the-scenes prep work required to bring the freaks to life is entertaining on its own. “Watching them get ready with the assistance of makeup artists, wig crew, and wardrobe people,” Tazewell adds, “it is its own kind of freak show!”
Photo by Joan Marcus.