Welcome to Broadway, Bill Condon — and high time! The very man who unlocked the doors to shows that were long thought to be too stagebound to work effectively as films — "Dreamgirls" and the Oscar-winning "Chicago" — is finally getting around to making his theatre-directing debut, again reversing all the rules and resuscitating for Broadway a flop cult-musical that expired almost 17 years ago after just three months.
Side Show, which began previews Oct. 28 for a Nov. 17 opening at the St. James Theatre, was not an easy pulse to find. It tells the strange-but-true story of conjoined twins, the Hilton sisters — Daisy and Violet, flower-child carnies of the depression era — who became the highest-paid act in vaudeville, shared the bill with Bob Hope, and even turned into movie stars at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in all its dream-factory prime and glory.
Closely collaborating with the show's original creators, composer Henry Krieger and lyricist-book writer Bill Russell, Condon has taken a different approach to the story — "reimagining it," as they say — sifting through the facts and finding human truths that were previously overtaken by the tawdry setting and situation.
Ultimately Condon is doing what Harold Prince did (Bob Fosse, too, in the film version) in the closing moments of "Cabaret": turning the distorted fun-house mirror on us, showing us that we are made of the same human stuff as the characters. Outsiders seem to be a Condon specialty, whether it's the outcast Dreamette that Krieger and Tom Eyen created for Dreamgirls, or the tabloid tarts in Chicago, or James Whale (the gay director of "Frankenstein" in Condon's Oscar-winning script for "Gods and Monsters").
Daisy and Violet are, of course, the most conspicuous and extreme example of this, and Condon has been on their trail a good decade, well before he adapted and directed "Dreamgirls" for the screen. "I went down to see Henry and Bill when they were in San Diego trying out their show, Lucky Duck," he recalls. "We talked about a possible film version of Side Show because I'd been such a fan of the show and known about the Hilton sisters through my interest in horror films and my love for their movie, 'Freaks.' Soon after that, Dreamgirls became a possibility as a movie.
"By chance, Roundabout [Theatre Company] called after 'Dreamgirls' came out and asked if I had any interest in doing something for the theatre. I'd wanted to do that for a very long time, so it all kind of combined. I called up Henry and Bill and asked if they had any interest in really reexploring Side Show — which is exactly what we'd have done anyway if we had done it as a movie, gone back to basics. They were keen to do it, so we got started. We took something that was a sort of sung-through pop opera in its original form and turned it into a more traditional book musical, made it less of a backstage musical and introduced more biographical elements into the story."
Some 60 percent of the score and story are new. Tod Browning, the director who brought the Hiltons into MGM's galaxy with "Freaks," is now a major character. He's credited with starting the horror movie craze of the early 1930s with Bela Lugosi in "Dracula," which was topped by Whale's "Frankenstein." Spotting a trend, Irving Thalberg, MGM's boy-wonder producer, promptly hired Browning to top them both. What he came up with — to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer's everlasting mortification — was a classic creep-out that did just that.
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, as Daisy and Violet, have a pretty tough, Tony-nominated act to follow in their Broadway predecessors, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. It was, admits Condon, the hardest thing he has ever had to cast.
"Yes, well, just imagine: These two women have to be credibly twins, if not identical twins. They have to be triple threats in our production — sing, dance and act — then, on top of that, they have to be completely different types. One is the comic part, and the other, the tragic. They have unbelievably separate personalities, so it was always a nail-biter. It was never 'If it's not these two, we've got the other two, and then the third pair.' We saw everybody, and I think we found the two perfect people."
Like a three-ring circus, the show has come together in well-measured installments. "Each step of the way — from La Jolla to the Kennedy Center and now the Kennedy Center to Broadway — we had the incredible advantage of time where things come into focus. The Kennedy Center was great for making changes, but we only had a handful of previews and that was it. We learned a number of things from that production that we're going to work on now. Physically, there are going to be some additional set pieces. Each step has been finishing what we originally set out to do." Condon won't be giving up on movies any time soon, but he is an enthusiastic convert to the new medium. "I keep saying it's like all the best parts of moviemaking, with all the boring bits cut out. It's just so immediate, but the process is amazingly similar. It's just jumbled up in a different order. Usually, with a movie, you shoot something, then you edit it and it exists. With theatre, you edit and change and write all at the same time. I've found it completely thrilling, and the immediate feedback from an audience has just been extraordinary.
"The fact that — as opposed to movies — you can do it again; this'll be the third time I've done it. Except for Woody Allen, nobody gets to shoot movies twice, much less three times. Being in rehearsal and getting to start over again for the third time, with the knowledge you've picked up along the way — that's a luxury you just don't have with movies.”