“Who will love me as I am?” That is the question Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner – playing conjoined twins – ask in Side Show, a musical that has attained cult status. But while the two performers continue to be associated with that show and with each other, Ripley is more than one half of a team, with a long list of musical-theater performances to her credit and a rock group that bears her name.
Born in San Leandro, California, Ripley started taking guitar lessons at age fourteen (she still plays professionally), and at about the same time she took acting lessons. “Theater,” she said, “became my church, my structure, my family, my identity.” She graduated from Kent State University with a degree in musical theater and began work as a professional stage performer in the early 1980s, appearing in West Coast productions of The Sound of Music, Shenadoah, Showboat, Sweeney Todd, and other musicals. In Nashville, she met her future husband, drummer Shannon Ford; the two moved to New York, and Ripley quickly made her mark on Broadway.
Her Broadway debut took place in 1988, when she stepped in to play Fantine – the struggling mother forced into a life of prostitution to care for her daughter – in Les Misérables. She was in the original Broadway cast of The Who’s Tommy (1993) – the musical-theater version of the British band’s rock opera – which won the Tony® for Best Original Score.
Although her parts in The Who’s Tommy were small, she took center stage in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard (1994), playing Betty Schaefer – aspiring writer and love interest of the leading male – in the Broadway production, which starred Glenn Close as the has-been movie star Norma Desmond. The show collected a slew of awards, including the Tonys® for Best Musical and Best Original Score. In the Alan Menken/Tim Rice musical King David (1997),she created the part of Bathsheba.
Yet it was in Side Show (1997), the musical by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, that Ripley made her most lasting mark on Broadway, playing Violet Hilton, one of a pair of conjoined twins who rose from being freak-show curiosities to semi-stars. Ripley’s other half was played by Emily Skinner, and on stage the two women looked remarkably alike; their voices blended beautifully, and they went on to record duet albums. For their combined performance in Side Show, both Ripley and Skinner were jointly nominated for Best Actress in a Musical – an unprecedented move in the history of the Tonys®.
Ripley and Skinner were together again in James Joyce’s The Dead (1999), the musical based on Joyce’s famous story from his short-story collection Dubliners. In a 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Ripley played Janet Weiss (“I wanna be dirty”), raising eyebrows by stripping off her bra at the end of “Touch-A-Touch-A-Touch Me.”
More recent stage credits include Dreamgirls, Company, Little Shop of Horrors, The Baker’s Wife, Little Fish, and Next to Normal.
Her solo CD Everything’s Fine (2001) shows her talents as a singer-songwriter and rock musician. She continues to perform rock with her band Ripley – singing, of course, as well as playing guitar and keyboard.