Sixteen years ago, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell perplexed Broadway audiences with a strange new musical called SIDE SHOW. Based on the lives of Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twin sisters who became a vaudeville sensation in the 1930s, the show lovingly embraced the otherness of its freak-show characters. It was an astonishingly original piece of theater, one that eschewed the escalating demand for the kind of razzle-dazzle spectacle that draws in tourists. Though well-reviewed by The New York Times' Ben Brantley and nominated for four Tony Awards, the show struggled commercially. Ninety-one performances later, Krieger and Russell's bold new musical closed.
It seemed highly unlikely that a show drawn in part from Tod Browning's infamous 1932 film FREAKS would find a second life in regional theater, but the songwriting prowess of Krieger and Russell would not be denied. Numbers like "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You" pierced the hearts of those who heard them, while the musical's unabashed championing of the bizarre and the grotesque connected deeply with adventurous theatergoers. SIDE SHOW might've failed on Broadway, but it flourished in the souls of a fiercely devoted cult following. And now one of its admirers is rounding up the freaks and geeks for another go at theater immortality.
On November 5th, director Bill Condon will unveil his vision of SIDE SHOW at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, California. This is no mere revival. This is an extensive reworking of the musical that boasts a great deal of new material from Krieger and Russell, while also establishing a more direct link to Browning's film (in which the Hilton sisters were featured). With renowned makeup artists Dave and Lou Elsey contributing their brilliant takes on such memorable freaks as Reptile Man, the Venus Hottentot and the Geek, Condon's SIDE SHOW promises to be a much more elaborate production than the Broadway incarnation. In a way, this is FREAKS: THE MUSICAL.
Condon previously collaborated with Krieger on 2007's film adaptation of DREAMGIRLS, and the two appear to be entirely confident in each other's abilities to deliver a SIDE SHOW with broadened appeal. When I dropped by the theater last week, they were on the eve of an eight-day tech rehearsal and shockingly relaxed about it. Backdrops were in the final stages of being painted, the set was in the midst of construction, lights were being adjusted, and no one seemed stressed by any of it. The show would go on in two weeks, and they'd be ready.
It helps that Condon has the freedom to make adjustments throughout the show's run. "It's like eight test screenings a week," says Condon. "It seems like a movie director's nightmare, but the great thing about it is - opposed to a movie, where, absent reshooting, the DNA of a movie is baked into what you shoot - here is the opportunity to make some major changes in response to what isn't making sense to an audience."
Major changes such as writing a brand new song a week out of tech, which Krieger and Russell just turned around like it was nothing. "We live to write," says Krieger. "When Bill Condon asks for a new song or a new scene, it's a real joy to be asked that. He's just so intelligent, so without ego problems, such a fan of other people's work, an encourager, and he's got a laser beam of a mind. He can see where edits come in, and he can suggest something for a spot that he detects is not full enough."
This raises the question of what precisely has changed between the 1997 production and now. "It's not black-and-white different," says Krieger, "But there's a deepening of our way of depicting the characters. The story itself is getting much more clarified, and we get to know more and more of why people are doing what they're doing and saying what they're saying. The backstory of the manager, Terry Connor, we didn't have all that the last time. I would say that there is a cinematic sweep. The story of each of the characters and all their interrelated stories, is much clearer now."
Indeed, the new songs that Krieger and Russell have written for this incarnation address this emphasis on a clarified narrative. "There's a song 'All in the Mind' that's sung by Harry Houdini in a flashback of the girls' lives," says Krieger. "Part of it is Houdini appearing and explaining how they can use mental skills to isolate themselves from each other or things they don't want to deal with. It's a mental compartmentalization formula that he teaches them in song. I'm so glad I wrote that song with Bill Russell. It's deep and dark and fun and meaningful. There's also a song called "Very Well Connected", where Terry Connor puts out his resume for them so that they'll trust him."
"Deep and dark" seems to be the order of the day in this iteration of SIDE SHOW. "I think it's going to be very moody and mysterious," says Condon. "That sense of the freak or the monster inside us, I think that's a very universal feeling."
To give you a sense of the somewhat monstrous nature of this production, here is an exclusive look at costume designer Paul Tazewell's sketches for Reptile Man and the Geek. This is what the Elseys have been asked to replicate, and, most startling to me, what actors who play other roles in the show will be asked to sing under. I have no idea how these quick changes will work, but I'd love to be backstage to watch them pull it off.
In case you're wondering, that's chicken blood dripping from the geek's mouth. We're definitely on the verge of Grand Guignol here.
As for what will become of this SIDE SHOW after its Kennedy Center run in 2014, that's up to critics and theatergoers. If there's an appetite for a heart-on-its-sleeve valentine to the persecuted "freaks" of the world, a Broadway rebirth could certainly be in the offing. Condon acknowledges there are many possibilities, including an eventual film. "It's become less a backstage musical and more a biographical musical drama," he says. "We're filling it in in a way that you could do it as a movie. I think it would be a tremendous movie musical. Not a mass-marketed one, but of interest. That's always the trick. Those movies cost a certain amount of money. But I'd love to keep figuring it out."
So would Krieger, who speaks movingly of the show's enduring appeal to its ever-expanding cult audience. "I think you could say that when we're young and when we're in school, many of us feel like we don't fit in. We're scared and we're on the sidelines, and then later in life sometimes kids act out and do horrible things because they don't belong. Seeing a show like this about these conjoined twins, that not only accommodated their life condition, but went on to be vaudeville stars... I think that for a lot of people that come to see the musical, they feel a kinship with the girls and with the people in the sideshow: the freaks. I think it makes more than okay the idea of feeling different. I think that there's a unifying message in the thrust of the show: that you can celebrate the fact that you're unique or different, and not just feel that you'll always be a round peg in a square hole or something like that."
It's a grand notion: that there is actual comfort and hope in being "one of us".
SIDE SHOW will run at the La Jolla Playhouse from November 5th to December 15th. To purchase tickets, visit the theater's official website.