The other night, waiting for the curtain to rise at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on their musical Side Show, a wave of reality suddenly washed over Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. "Emily looked at me before we went out and said, 'We're playing Siamese twins!'" remembers the latter. "Like, it just sunk in. It is very strange, but in another way it is the most wonderful, organic acting experience I've ever had."
Eight times a week, these blonde beauties make their entrances from opposite sides of the theatre, come together centerstage-hips touching-and stay that way until their final curtain call when they split and exit the way they came.
"I think they do that on purpose," opts Skinner. "It's like, 'Okay, here we are. We're actresses. We're going to be these people for you now.' So it's set up right away that we're not really conjoined. That's good because it allows the audience to go with the flow without obsessing the entire show on 'Gee, do they have Velcro? Do they have magnets? Snaps? What is that?'"
They play the century's most bizarre high-profile sister act. Skinner is the extroverted Daisy, Ripley is the introverted Violet-the British-born Hilton twins who spent much of their 60 years in the mercilessly mean glare of cruel exploitation, rising from carnival sawdust to the zenith of a Ziegfeld show on Broadway. Along the way, they did two movies: Freaks and Chained for Life.
"Freaks was really hard for me," admits Skinner. "It was so raw. But Daisy and Violet were sweet, so young and vulnerable and cute." She got all the way through Chained for Life, despite its primitive production values (i.e., for a dream sequence in which they are separated, one of the twins had to hide behind a tree). "It was 19 years later, and they were in their 40's. You could see in their faces they'd been through the mill. They really looked as if they had had a rough life."
The musical makes one major adjustment in the twins. "Daisy and Violet were on opposite sides than the sides that we play them on," Ripley says. "It was an artistic decision to switch sides because the strongest side of the stage is the left side, and Daisy is always the one that speaks first. Violet is much more reserved and protective. Daisy is more outgoing.
"We both read a lot about the Hilton sisters. A lot of the material was propaganda (or we believe it was propaganda) that was put out by either their managers or their publicists when they were stars. Stuff like 'Daisy likes to flirt with men, and Violet likes to read. ' "
Both Skinner and Ripley stepped (snugly) into the star spot from, essentially, a chorus line. Skinner had a slight edge in the duality department, coming directly from Jekyll & Hyde. "I was in the ensemble, and I covered for Linda Eder and Christiane Noll," she says. Ripley reached Broadway via the original cast of The Who's Tommy, in which she played the Specialist's Assistant. "Norm Lewis, who plays Jake in Side Show, and I had a song together in Tommy, and I understudied Mrs. Walker," she says. "I actually went on for weeks because Marcia Mitzman was out during previews and after we opened, so a lot of people saw me do Mrs. Walker." The exposure got her Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway.
Not only do the two actresses share the same dressing room, they share the same opinions about the show. Take, for instance, the most difficult thing to do. "Neither Alice nor I is a dancer, so not only to dance but to dance conjoined is a whole exercise in being really centered," says Skinner. "When you're dancing, connected to somebody, you're constantly balancing and regaining your balance--it's tricky to make it look like we're connected." Their favorite moment is, likewise, the same: their finale anthem, "I Will Never Leave You." At the end of the show, says Ripley, "Violet discovers her own integrity. She sees a glimpse of the essence of who she is and decides to stand by herself and her beliefs. That kind of self-acceptance and unconditional love toward yourself is something that I really respect."
Skinner seconds that motion: "I think the show's very uplifting, frankly. A lot of people don't know what to make of the ending because it's not a happy, fairy-tale end, but for me it is. I watched this show on CBS called 'Twin Stories' recently. There were these Siamese twins talking about having grown up as twins, and they said it's like being born with your soul mate. I thought, 'That's so true.' And that moment at the end when they sing 'I Will Never Leave You' and have that spiritual moment where they accept themselves and become strong because of it‹that moment is like saying, 'You are my soul mate, and I love you.'"