By Peter Filichia
What a good season for Bill Russell! He’s just seen one of his musicals return to off-Broadway — Pageant, now at the Davenport Theatre on West 45th – and come October, Side Show makes its return to Broadway.
In June the musical that Russell wrote with Henry (Dreamgirls) Krieger opened to raves from both critics and audiences at the Kennedy Center. However the 2014 version won’t quite mirror the original – although the 1997 edition was artistically solid enough to bring Russell two Tony nominations: one for his book and one for writing lyrics to Krieger’s music.
Considering the many changes that Russell detailed to me, the next cast album of Side Show won’t replicate the one that so many of us have savored in the last seventeen years. This means that if you’re a Side Show newbie, to get all of its heavenly music you’ll have to get the show’s original Broadway cast album.
It features Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, both Tony-nominated – although one could argue that each actress received half a nomination, for they were honored as a unit and one nomination. This happened because of the specific nature of Side Show, which dealt with Violet (Ripley) and Daisy (Skinner) Hilton (1908-1969), both conjoined twins.
“There’s only one song that hasn’t changed at all, and that’s ‘Like Everyone Else,’” says Russell, citing the song in which the Hiltons sing that they’d settle for being just two normal people. “Otherwise, the score is about one-third new.”
“Come Look at the Freaks,” the opening number, has changed because new director Bill Condon wanted different types of “curious people” (to use a nicer term) than original director Robert Longbottom had envisioned. “Now we have a three-legged man, a human pin-cushion and the world’s tiniest Cossack,” says Russell. “The sheik that had a harem is gone. Bill Condon felt that such a person really didn’t qualify as a – you should pardon the expression – ‘freak,’ even though such a person was definitely featured in a number of side shows.”
That led to another slight change. Says Russell, “Before, when Terry, an Orpheum Circuit talent scout, got the twins a job in vaudeville, he used to sing ‘Say Goodbye to the Freak Show.’ Since then, we’ve decided that Terry doesn’t like to use the word ‘freak,’ so it’s now ‘Say Goodbye to the Side Show.”
Don’t assume that Russell and Kreiger frantically wrote new songs.
“When Bill started working with us,” says Russell, “he asked us for everything that we’d ever written for the show. Afterward, when we met with him, he mentioned songs that he felt were thematically on point. Some of them we didn’t even recollect writing, and yet, once we went back to our tapes, there they were.
Alas, the fondly remembered “Tunnel of Love” – in which Violet and Daisy embarked on a carnival ride with their respective admirers Buddy (Hugh Panaro) and Terry (Jeff McCarthy) – has been dropped.
“That was the toughest one for me to lose,” says Russell. “I do understand the reason, though. The plot has greatly changed in Act Two, and instead we now have a song called ‘Coming Apart at the Seams.’ It’s sung approximately at the same moment, prior to the wedding that Daisy and Terry are to have at the Texas centennial celebration.”
“Happy Birthday to You and to You” is out. “The twins still have a birthday,” he says “but we didn’t want to take time to sing about it.”
Hmmm, time must be a factor in this new Side Show, for the dropped song ran less than a minute. “Well,” says Russell with a laugh, “we’re trying more to show the difficulty of Daisy and Violet’s lives and not romanticize as much as we did originally. That’s why in Act One we now have a scene when the twins tell Terry and Buddy about their childhood and we flash back to it.”
“More Than We Bargained For” and “Beautiful Day for a Wedding” have been dropped, too. “Leave Me Alone” has stayed, but reassigned to a different point in the script. “By Your Side” has been replaced with a new song called “Typical Girls Next Door.”
Some of the changes have been minimal. “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” has lost all of one couplet: “Like a clown whose tears cause laughter trapped inside the center ring,” sang Daisy, to which Violet responded, “Even seeing smiling faces, I am lonely pondering.” Says Russell, “Well, people don’t say ‘pon-der-RING,’ do they, but ‘PON-der-ing.’”
As odd as it may sound, Russell and Krieger weren’t the first to write a musical about the Hilton Sisters. In 1999, the WPA Theatre produced Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes. “The funny thing is that Henry and I had already discussed doing a Hilton Sisters musical, so when we heard that some people had already got around to writing one, we stopped talking about it,” he says. “I didn’t even go see it.”
Russell would have had to hustled to catch Twenty Fingers, Twenty Toes. It opened on Dec. 19, 1989 and closed on Jan. 21, 1990 after a mere thirty-five performances. Mel Gussow in the Times said it was “all thumbs” and that it was “merely monstrous” in its “bad taste.”
(I did see it and can concur; in the title song, the Hiltons bragged about having “two tushes; two bushes.” The approach that Russell and Krieger would later take would be far more humane. They cared about these women.)
They might have got to the Hiltons sooner if Russell hadn’t been working on Pageant in the early ‘90s. “It all got started because a friend of Bobby Longbottom saw Chained for Life, the movie the Hiltons themselves actually made in 1952.” That little-known film’s plot slightly masked the conjoined twins as vaudevillians Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton. There are plenty of plot strands, but in the end, Dorothy kills a man who encouraged her love while really being involved with another woman. When Vivian learns of his duplicity, she shoots him dead. While we might infer that “hell hath no fury like two women scorned,” Dorothy was guiltless. Now a judge has a real dilemma: punishing Vivian with a sentence that ranged from incarceration to death would punish the innocent Dorothy, too. It’s a knotty problem worthy of Solomon, and the film ends by asking the audience what it would do.
“The idea of doing a musical of Chained for Life struck us as a bad idea,” says Russell. “We felt we could do better by the women.”
Actually, some could point to the original Side Show as not doing all that much better than Twenty Fingers, for it played thirty-one previews and ninety-one performances. To be fair, however, the Richard Rodgers Theatre has over a thousand seats more than the cozy WPA ever did.
“Back then, we had no buzz because we opened cold on Broadway,” says Russell. “And we had no stars.”
No, but Side Show immeasurably helped Ripley and Skinner with their careers. For a while they seemed to be inextricably linked, recording three albums together and starring in James Joyce’s The Dead. A few years after they “separated,” Ripley won a Tony for Next to Normal.
Nevertheless, chances are if you were at any Side Show performance, you heard a most enthusiastic audience; I certainly did during my three trips. If you attended, there’s also a chance that you sat next to Bill Condon, for he saw it twice. “It never left his consciousness,” says Russell. “And of course he worked with Henry on the Dreamgirls movie.”
Only those who know both the 1997 and 2014 editions of Side Show are in any position to say whether the new version is a step forward or backward. But what Bill Russell, Henry Krieger, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner gave us in 1997 remains quite choice.