Another revival has plunked itself down on Broadway . As the original new musicals are mostly half baked, I wonder what the season will be like 20 years from now, when there is nothing to revive? And I wondered as I entered the St. James Theatre: “Haven’t I seen this before?”
But that needn’t concern us now — let it be known that Henry Krieger’s music and Bill Russell’s lyrics for Side Show have been interwoven with additional book material by Bill Condon and a number of new songs by Krieger and Russell. Condon had successfully collaborated with Henry Krieger on the film adaptation of the smash Dreamgirls, which he directed from his own screenplay.
For once, all of this adjusting has added luster to what was an “almost” hit that only managed 91 performances ending in early 1992. The original had mixed reviews, but an excellent one from Mr. Brantley in the Times, and yet it lacked the added plus that turns near misses into great hits. It’s still the same story — it tells of the true story of the Hilton twins, Daisy and Violet, conjoined at the hip and consigned to the lowest form of entertainment in show business — the “freak show” on the carnival circuit.
Abandoned by the mother who bore them, they’ve been raised by the barker of the show, a man they call “Sir” (Robert Joy), who has managed to convince them that he owns them and must do whatever he tells them to do. They have no contact with the outside world, and are very popular with the oddities who populate their company of artists. In the freak show, they are the star attraction.
Audiences in the early nineties did not respond to the subject matter — not exactly the sort of material they were seeking as they shopped for an entertaining musical. A lot has happened to the world in the past twenty years, and conjoined twins are no less likely now to be the subject of a theatre piece than are transsexuals, transvestites, homosexuals, adulterers, philanderers and how about – wolverines, bat men, an elephant man. It’s the happily married couple or the charming young man-hungry girl, or the college kid who wants to win the game for his alma mater who’s hard to find in the new musicals and plays.
Of course it’s not just the subject that has become more palatable. With the help of Bill Condon’s inventive staging and impeccable casting, the show now catches fire and makes Daisy and Violet two individual human beings who happen to be yearning for both independent lives while tied emotionally each to the other so that one of their most moving musical moments is their dual rendering of “I Would Never Leave You”, a touching lyric attached to a gorgeous tune. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett wrap themselves around David Chase’s arrangement and turn it into a towering theme for the show. Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley did well with it too in the original production, but this rewrite has added dimension to their characters and this time around we are much more involved in the outcome of their story.
Others help along the way. The two men who discover them and move them onto a larger stage, figure importantly in their professional and personal lives. With their help they are ultimately on welcoming vaudeville stages that favored them with big time stardom and all that goes with it. Ultimately they land on the big screen in Tod Browning’s “Freaks”. Their two suitors are played beautifully by Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik. A third man who pursues one of the girls is Jake, played with great power by David St. Louis. Even though the gifted Norm Lewis played Jake with great distinction in the original, the old adage about “no great musical can make it on the score alone” is dramatically confirmed here. The trimming of the book, and the enriching of the supporting characters as well as the leading ladies, has made the score more effective.
The new material also required a good deal of new music and Krieger and Russell have delivered some gems. The best of the original lot, including “Who Will Love Me As I Am” and “Welcome to the Freaks” are more powerful musically; their lyrics are honorable enough but they don’t always surprise us, even as they do serve to propel the story. I’m not certain which are the new numbers; I do know the score sounds richly varied and memorable, more so than it did to me in 1992. I will certainly buy the CD, for it deserves more than one hearing.
One could do the same show about either of the two ladies individually, but it would lack the distinction it now enjoys. It’s familiar enough as it is — the kids from nowhere who develop into class acts — well, what do you know? — it’s the same tale as the one in Dream Girls, which dramatized the rise of the Supremes and Diana Ross, thinly disguising them with other names.
By particularizing the characters and casting them with actors who can bring individuality to the work, they have made them more universal. The revelations life made about the particular circumstances of this unique Daisy and Violet lift it to a level that should make it appealing to a much wider audience. It certainly deserves to.
[Washington audiences will be familiar with the Kennedy Center’s debut of Side Show, whose cast is now in the Broadway production.]
Side Show is on stage at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street (between Broadway and 8th Ave), NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.