You'd probably not think there would be a musical in the 60 years that Daisy and Violet Hilton put in on this planet — saddled side by side until they were finally felled by Hong Kong flu in Charlotte, NC Jan. 4, 1969 — but you're wrong. Twice wrong.
A new and markedly improved Broadway musical about these conjoined British twins parked itself at the St. James Theatre Nov. 17 for what looks like a lengthy stay, rising from the ash heap of the first failed attempt, which faded fast from the scene after three months on Jan. 4, 1998, the 31st anniversary of the Hiltons' deaths.
The original composer, Henry Krieger, and book and lyric writer, Bill Russell, have stayed aboard and even exceeded their original contributions — but the life force of this successful resurrection is Bill Condon, tinkering this long-dead creation back among the living with his sensitive direction (his first for Broadway) and the all-important-but-easily-overlooked "additional book material." It lets the sunshine in.
Second comings are as rare on Broadway as they are in religion, but this remarkable resuscitation — just the fact that it CAN be done — should give hope for other flawed works that are worth the tinkering and the rethinking and, if you must, the reinventing (Mack & Mabel, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Breakfast at Tiffany's, et al). For the present, composer Krieger was content to give his thanks for "The Miracle on 45th Street." "They don't usually do that, especially when it's a show that kinda had to go away," he was musing at the Tao after-party on Ninth Avenue, nevertheless amazed at the bull's eye of his second shot. "For us to have a chance to do this again with a blue-chip director and terrific writer like Bill Condon — well, it's unheard of."
Wordsmith Russell couldn't agree more. "Working with Bill Condon has just been a constant joy," he said. "He is a genius, and I have such respect for him. I always had such a talent crush on him. It's been the greatest gift of my life to work with him."
This was the Broadway opening that Russell always wanted. "It was a thrill beyond belief," he said. "If my childhood self could have seen tonight, he'd have exploded!"
Some might argue that the 59-year-old Condon was predestined to make his Broadway debut with Side Show. He won his Oscar in 1998 for scripting "Gods and Monsters," a film about the last years of James Whale, the gay film director who made the "Frankenstein" classic with Boris Karloff. That success prompted Tod Browning to make "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi, and its success caused Irving Thalberg to bring Browning to M-G-M to helm "Freaks," the horror classic that marked the movie debuts of Daisy and Violet Hilton and made them, however improbable it may seem, card-carrying members of The M-G-M Dream Factory.
Condon's crafting on the existing Side Show text, shifting the emphasis from the icky and exploited into more human dimensions, should earn him membership in the carpenters' union. It's a prime example of shaping material into a meaningful whole.
He claims he doesn't know how he did it and is quick to credit his actors and other collaborators. "I just think we kept working at it. We just had a wonderful rehearsal-period year. It's also what the actors discover because they have to live with it. A lot happens in that way, y'know. Then, we just started to add things and find new stuff."
The "God and Monsters" Oscar led him to adapt the stagebound "Chicago" into a fluid piece of film that won the Best Picture of 2003. This got him a double shot — adapting and directing — another of Broadway's famously unfilmable properties, "Dreamgirls," where he met Krieger, who had written that show with Tom Eyen. At this point in his career, Condon could have his pick at mediums. For the time being at least, he's settling for one of each. "After this," he said, "I'm going off to London to do a live-action film of Beauty and the Beast: The Musical — in other words, the great Menken score, but done as a live-action, non-animated film."
"We both started the show in a very good mood because it's such a celebratory night," said Davie, the teary one. "Then I realized it's hard for to do this show when I'm in a good mood. The whole show — but especially Violet — gets dark and heavy."
Otherwise, the opening performance went smooth enough. "Tonight felt like a true celebration," said Padgett, the married one (husband Brandt Martinez from Aladdin was in attendance). "We've done about 20 previews, and we've really put the work in, and tonight we felt the fans of the show — like, everyone in the audience wanted to be there and was really excited to be there, and it just felt like pure joy."
DeLaney Westfall, who understudies both twins and actually saw Lauren Kennedy go on for one of them in the '97 production, said all you have to do is "learn every single line of the entire show and then learn the choreography. It's the best challenge I've ever had. The girls are fantastic. I love watching them every night.:
Ryan Silverman, a dashing leading man who has been hunting for a part to originate on Broadway since Rebecca evaporated, has finally found a suitable role — the rake who manages the twins' career and would marry Daisy, were he an all-or-nothing-at-all type. He's not, unlike Buddy (Matthew Hydzik), a kind, confused gay who weds Violet at the Cotton Bowl on the 50-yard line at the Texas Centennial. "What I like about the character is that he's an open nerve ending," said Hydzik. "He's someone who really identifies with the girls — maybe a bit too much. In our version, he steps up to the plate and becomes a really strong man. Their marriage was annulled three days later. There were a few marriages that the girls went through, mostly for financial reasons. That's how they made their living. They didn't have any facilities or knowledge of the world besides performing to do anything else."
As their first champion, Jake, a part originally played by Norm Lewis, David St. Louis is a tower of quiet strength. "What I like about this guy is he doesn't have to say much," he said. "You know exactly what's going on in his head — what he's going to do, what he should do. He kinda has the perspective of the audience."
Hannah Shankman, the tattooed lady of the show, had good news: "There's so much good makeup these days to put them on and to take them off. It takes about 10 minutes to get the tattoos on every day. That's not too long. It's pretty easy."
First-nighters included Charl Brown, director Jack O'Brien, who's about to put Martin Short into Nathan Lane's role in It's Only a Play; a crewcut and bespectacled Lea DeLaria; Claybourne Elder bowing Off-Broadway Nov. 19 in CSC's Allegro; sprightly Joel Grey toiling over his tell-all; Erich Bergen, an ex-and-movie Jersey Boy with a gaggle of the current Jersey Boys (Richard H. Blake, Dominic Scaglione Jr., Quinn VanAntwerp) who got the night off; director Christopher Ashley, back from doing Memphis in the West End, and jumping into a new musical about Hunter Thompson; Justin Guarini; Christine Ebersole; Carly Hughes; Paul (people don't wear hats anymore, let alone top hats) Iacono, who's deubting his musical memoir at 54 Below called Where's the Fucking Kid? (which is what Elaine Stritch said to him when he broke both wrists backstage doing Sail Away at Carnegie Hall and she forced him to go on); Edward Hibbert, who, as a literary agent, brokered the deal that sold "Gods and Monsters" to the movies and who, as an actor, will join Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris on Broadway in the spring for their New Brunswick opus It Shoulda Been You; Richie Jackson and Jordan Roth; the much-murdered Jefferson Mays of Gentleman's Guide and wife Susan Lyons; It's Only a Playwright Terrence McNally and his husband-producer Tom Kirdahy; Nicolette Robinson Odom and Leap of Faith's Leslie Odom, Jr.; former Phantom and Philadelphian Hugh Panaro, who's doing nine concerts with The Philly Pops; Condola Rashad and mama, Phylicia; Cry-Baby duo Elizabeth Stanley of On the Town and Alli Mauzey of Show Boat; Lucas Steele; Betty Buckley, who flew back from four nights at Feinstein's in San Francisco in time to do the Elaine Stritch memorial; Melissa Van Der Schyff, who's starting rehearsals for Absurd Person Singular with Michael Cumpsty and Brooks Ashmanskis; Ruben and Isabel Toledo; Jerry Dixon and Mario Cantone; actress Karen Allen, who's directing a film of Carson McCullers' A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud; Tony winners Laura Benanti, Lena Hall and BD Wong; and Keala Settle, now of Les Miz but once of Side Show ("I came to support the family I was originally with in La Jolla. The world wasn't ready for the first Side Show. I think they're ready for it now — and even if they're not, they're about to get hit with tenfold!")