At Kennedy Center, ‘Side Show’ takes another turn around the midway

It was always a stunning way to start. “Come look at the freaks!” sang the assorted actors in the short-lived Broadway production of “Side Show” as they introduced themselves to us: human oddities in a grotesque carnival, beckoning us to venture into a forbidding world, to “come see God’s mistakes.”

In the extensively rewritten version of the musical at the Kennedy Center, re-engineered under the guidance of director Bill Condon, this song remains pretty much the same. It’s the “freaks” who’ve been radically reconceived. On Broadway, the singers were exotic only in the mind’s eye. Now, in the incarnation starting preview performances Saturday, they’ve been cast and elaborately costumed to resemble the “attractions” they describe: the human pincushion, the pygmies, the lizard man, the living Venus, the dog boy, the geek.

The inspiration came from Condon, Oscar-winning screenwriter (“Gods and Monsters”) and director of the 2006 movie adaptation of “Dreamgirls.” His passion for the show, with its bizarre heroines — Siamese twins who become vaudeville stars — was a major impetus for the Kennedy Center-produced revival. Given his filmic background — and his admiration for a horror classic with biographical ties to the musical, Tod Browning’s 1932 “Freaks,” in which the Hilton siamese twins appeared — a more cinematic approach to “Side Show” seemed a logical development.

“I loved Bobby’s production,” Condon explained the other day, referring to the 1997 Broadway original, directed by Robert Longbottom, with a score by Henry Krieger and Bill Russell. “But I did feel like it would be fun to attack it in a new way — not to make it abstract again, but REAL. To be more in-your-face with the oddity of it.”

It would be fair to say that the claim to a wholesale makeover of “Side Show” is for real, too. Seven years after Condon, Krieger and Russell first sat down together, to take apart the show and put it back together, the “Side Show” that Washington audiences will see is a serious alteration of the version that, despite some strong reviews and fans, ran on Broadway for a mere 91 performances. As Ben Brantley put it in his October 1997 New York Times write-up, “This musical seems guaranteed to divide its audiences into violent tribes of admirers and detractors.”

A behind the scenes look at costume and makeup used to create the diverse group of characters in Bill Condon’s “Side Show.” The musical is now at the Kennedy Center through July 13. (Courtesy Kennedy Center/The Washington Post)

“It was bittersweet, in that audiences responded so strongly, but we were not selling tickets,” Russell, who wrote the book and the lyrics, said of the polarized reactions. “Even when it closed, I thought as a property, it would get done again.”

In an attempt to broaden its base of admirers, 60 percent of the show is new material, according to the director. Fundamentally, the 2014 edition shifts the focus away from what
was in essence a backstage show-
business musical and toward what Condon calls “a biographical work” about the women.

A return to Broadway?

As a result, “Side Show” is that rarity, the financial flop that gets another chance, as something significantly overhauled. The project represents both an admirable risk and a departure for the Kennedy Center, which in the recent past has revived respected titles with commercially iffy pasts: “Ragtime” in 2009, “Follies” in 2011. Still, those musicals arrived as essentially finished works. (In one of Michael M. Kaiser’s last acts as president, the center will be going out on a limb even further, as producer this fall of “Little Dancer,” a start-up original musical.)

The center sent the revivals of “Ragtime” and “Follies” to Broadway, where they received respectable notices while doing less-than-boffo business. The natural question is: If things go well, will “Side Show” be booking a trip to New York, too, 17 years after its first? Perhaps in the wake of other musicals incorporating unorthodox themes like “Spring Awakening” and “Next to Normal,” “Side Show” won’t seem quite so outré. The new musical hit on Broadway, after all, is “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a show (also from the ’90s) about a transgender would-be rock star who’s been mutilated in a botched sex-change operation.

As far as the creators of “Side Show” are concerned, the journey has been well worth it, even if it ends here. “It’s been a great gift,” said Krieger, best known for his score of “Dreamgirls,” the rock-and-roll tale of the rise of a group like The Supremes. “It has been very nourishing and thought-provoking to get another really good chance to make this musical accessible to an audience.”

The collaboration on “Side Show” grew out of the enriching experience Krieger had on the “Dreamgirls” movie with Condon, who a few years earlier hit movie-musical pay dirt with the screenplay for the Academy Award-winning “Chicago.” In 2008, they and Russell got together for a workshop of the still-evolving “Side Show” revival for New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, but money proved tight in the wake of the financial crisis. Condon later became busy, directing the “Breaking Dawn” movies in the “Twilight” franchise.

The project was resuscitated after the Kennedy Center signed up, with San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse agreeing to be a first stop. The renovation work continued. “We reexamined every syllable of the show,” said Russell. Of Condon, he observed wryly: “There has been more than one time he has questioned my commas.”

To that end, 10 songs have been added, including a new comedy song, “Stuck With You,” to open Act 2, and a big number at the dramatic climax, “Coming Apart at the Seams,” which was put in after the engagement last fall at La Jolla Playhouse that garnered encouraging, if mixed, reviews. “The book needs another round of revisions, and the best songs in the extensively refurbished score are still the old ones, but it’s a pleasure to encounter a musical that is too emotionally rich to be consigned to oblivion,” Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote in his Nov. 19 assessment.

As much as “Side Show” has been reworked, however, its creators say that it has remained true to its central story, that of the turbulent careers and emotional struggles of Violet and Daisy Hilton, the real-life Siamese-twin sister act that the musical chronicles. Far more has been added in Act 1 to a version of the sisters’ back story, the tale of their births in England just after the turn of the 20th century, and the abuses they endured at the hands of a mercenary caretaker and, later, a low-rent huckster who took them to the United States. (Harry Houdini, whom Condon says was “obsessed” with the twins, now has a cameo.)

The second act has been rethought, too, with more attention to a notion that sparks a soul-searching identity crisis for the young women: a suggestion that Violet and Daisy submit to an experimental surgical procedure that would separate them and allow them to live independently of each other. It’s a conceit, the creative team allows, that provides for a more fitting segue to the musical’s tear-streaked 11 o’clock number, “I Will Never Leave You.”

That song, among others, is fondly remembered by those who saw the Broadway production, and heard it performed by the original Violet and Daisy — Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. Both were nominated for Tonys. The roles are now being played by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. Washington theatergoers may remember it, too, from a 2008 concert version of “Side Show” that was woven into an evening of show tunes that the Kennedy Center called “Broadway: Three Generations.”

The musical itself, however, is also recalled as having perplexed many theatergoers, especially in its treatment of the twins’ love stories — an aspect that Russell says was perceived by the public as an “ick factor.” “Side Show” gives both sisters lovers, Buddy and Terry (here portrayed by Matthew Hydzik and Ryan Silverman), talent promoters who rescue them from the midway, seeing them first as meal tickets and then as potential mates. (Jake, a sideshow denizen played by David St. Louis whose love for Violet goes unrequited, remains a vital character as well.)

The ickiness seemed most pronounced in the original in “Tunnel of Love,” a song in which the couples attempt to find some alone time, er, together. “Passion should be private. Me and you. But I know she’s here, too,” Buddy sang. The number has been banished, though the melody now turns up as a fragment in another number. In an effort to clarify the relationships, Russell says, more attention has been devoted to the aspirations and conflicted motivations of the two men.

The challenge of casting

The wild swings in Daisy and Violet’s fortunes form a spine for the musical. Their successful lawsuit to emancipate themselves from their original manager, a sensation at the time, is chronicled, as is their experience later as one of the highest-paid acts in vaudeville. At one point, Condon says, they were earning $100,000 a month. (They died broke, working as baggers in a grocery store.) But it is in the idea of entwined devotion and divergent identity that “Side Show” looks for its deeper resonances. In outlook and ambition, the sisters could not be more different: Daisy, the extrovert, in pursuit of adventure and stardom, and Violet, the quieter one, who yearns for the uneventful routine of a homebody.

“It’s the biggest casting challenge I’ve ever faced,” Condon said of the show. Among the various sideshow “attractions,” he has added two little people to the cast. For his leads, he chose Davie and Padgett, a pair of journeymen actresses for whom the job of sticking together, literally, is daunting and exhilarating. “It’s a constant maneuvering, of who’s in charge,” Davie explained during a break in rehearsals at the Kennedy Center, with Padgett at her side. “You just have to be considerate, truly.”

“There’s something really comforting about it,” she added. “It feels like somebody always has your back.”

They’re physically enough alike so that the developing of the illusion of a lifelong inseparability came fairly naturally. “My stride is her stride,” said Padgett, a North Carolina native. (Davie hails from Tennessee.) They have done a bit of research on the sisters, for whom celluloid records exist: In the early ’50s, they starred in a weird B-movie melodrama, “Chained for Life,” about the legal dilemma that arises after a Siamese twin kills her husband. It’s the navigation of everyday life, though, that the actresses have tried to comprehend.

Asked what they thought the Hilton sisters sought most avidly, Padgett replied, “Love. I think what they would like is what they perceive is a normal love life. And they want to go out and have a cocktail and a smoke.”

Side Show Music by Henry Krieger, book and lyrics by Bill Russell. Directed by Bill Condon. Tickets, $45-$130. June 14-July 13 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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