"I wept," confessed librettist Bill Russell moments after seeing the curtain come down on the first New York preview of the new version of Side Show, his short-lived 1997 musical with composer Henry Krieger, which returned to Broadway Oct. 28 at the St. James Theatre.
Both writers admit that Side Show's original demise was a painful experience. The powerful, mostly sung-through production challenged Broadway audiences in the fall of 1997 with a dark story of conjoined twins – a season dominated by the family-friendly Disney blockbuster The Lion King and the lavish premiere of Ragtime.
"For me, it was a daily crucifixion for about a year," Krieger said of the show's swift closing after only 122 performances. Russell added, "I felt so strongly about the show. I felt it would have a life. What was saddest for me was that we had assembled that cast over two-and-a-half years, and that was hard, because they wouldn't get to do it anymore. I thought they were amazing."
Among that original cast were Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, the two daredevil singers who led the production as Daisy and Violet Hilton, respectively, and garnered a joint Tony Award nomination for their performance. Their razor-edge singing, which was part of the show's thrill, along with a compelling narrative that spoke to individuals who felt like outsiders long before Elphaba came to town, helped Side Show's original production develop a legion of dedicated fans who turned out for the show's final Broadway performance. "I remember we were over capacity," Krieger recalled of the final performance at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Jan. 3, 1998. "There were double the amount of people legally allowed in the theatre. It was fraught with emotion."
"When the cast entered, they got a standing ovation," Russell said. "During 'Say Goodbye to the Freak Show,' which it was called then, there were audible sobs in the audience." Krieger added, "It was a really amazing night."
This writer, who was in high school at the time, attended the show's final matinee hours earlier. The experience was quite similar, with rousing ovations for the start of the production, which opened with the entire company seated on bleachers facing the audience as the eery harp strains of "Come Look at the Freaks" began.
Numerous songs stopped the performance that day. Among them, "Say Goodbye to the Freak Show" [now titled "Say Goodbye to the Side Show"] and "We Share Everything." Sustained ovations greeted the twins power ballad duets "Who Will Love Me As I Am" and "I Will Never Leave You." A visibly moved cast took numerous bows during the curtain call on that last matinee.
Following Side Show's premature departure from Broadway, there was talk that the musical might return. Costumes and sets were kept in storage. "I had really gone over the top with my obsession with it continuing. I didn't want it to stop," Krieger said. However, the original production was never to resume. "There was a possibility, but sometimes the unseen hand has other ideas," Krieger said with a faraway grin.
Seventeen years after it premiered on Broadway, Side Show is back in a newly reshaped and re-envisioned production that brings a darker approach and more biographical back story to the lives of the Hilton sisters, whose search for love and acceptance propels the plot.
Press representatives for the Broadway "revisal" of Side Show, which has been newly reshaped by its director, Academy Award winner Bill Condon, made the show's first night back on Broadway a starry affair. Original star Ripley was in attendance, along with producer Jordan Roth and numerous friends and family from the Broadway community. The first preview felt like an opening night, even followed by an after-party at Sardi's. (Side Show officially opens Nov. 17). The energy within the St. James Theatre on Oct. 28 was high, and it was readily clear that many fans of the musical had returned to welcome the Hilton sisters back to Broadway. The dimming of the house lights was enough to stir the audience to applaud and cheer.
Russell spoke about seeing the curtain rise again on Side Show on Broadway. "From the moment the very first music started I was a mess," he said. "It was so thrilling."
"When there was applause for the harp at the opening, that really made me feel happy," Krieger added. "It's wonderful that so many fans came back tonight."
It wasn't just the harp (thanks to Harold Wheeler's rock-edged orchestrations) that earned "entrance" applause. It continued through the first look at the new and creepier freaks of Side Show, and cheers erupted as Emily Padgett and Erin Davie were revealed on stage as Daisy and Violet.
Their act one finale, "Who Will Love Me As I Am," which many single out as the show's anthem, was welcomed with applause as soon as the opening bars began, and some gave a standing ovation following the show's last ballad, "I Will Never Leave You."
"When the audience started applauding when certain songs started, that was just too much tonight," Russell beamed.
Followers of Side Show, who have been reading about the revival's development since the La Jolla Playhouse premiere last year and at the Kennedy Center run last summer, will note that some of the musical's connective musical tissue has been replaced with dialogue, a change that Russell and Krieger said they were sensitive about making. Both said they were relieved to see that fans at the first Broadway preview seemed receptive to the musical's new identity as a more traditional book musical.
"We made so many changes, and we were worried that some of the die-hard fans wouldn't buy into that," Russell admitted. "But they have. They've really gone with it." When asked if it was difficult to part with some of the sweeping recitative that threaded the show's stand-out songs, Krieger replied, "Sometimes less is more. When it isn't all music, that which is, is, in a way, in relief with the stuff that isn't. And sure, some of the stuff I really loved, and I think Bill did, too. But you'll notice that some of it is there in the underscore. I asked for certain things to be put in the underscore."
"I'm just so happy with this production. We both are. We love it," Russell added. Both authors stated that they hold an affinity for the original incarnation of Side Show that first seduced fans almost two decades ago.
"I think that our first venture in 1997-98 was like a fabulous black-and-white movie with a lot of noir in it," Krieger said. "And now it's a fabulous technicolor movie. I revere both of them in their way. Going through the Hollywood director's eyes of Bill Condon, I think, has allowed us to have a real color to it, and it still has its bones and its serious themes."
View performances from the original production below:
(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work also appears in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on twitter @PlaybillAdamH)