Reimagined Production of Side Show Continues to Take Shape; Bill Russell Chats About the Musical's Next Steps

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26 Dec 2013

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

The Tony Award-nominated 1997 musical Side Show returned to the stage earlier this fall at the La Jolla Playhouse in a restructured and re-conceived production staged by Academy Award winner Bill Condon. This new adaptation, which is still in development, pitches its tent next at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in June 2014.

Directed by Condon ("Dreamgirls"), Side Show began previews Nov. 5 and ended its West Coast premiere Dec. 15.

Condon has given new dramatic shape to the dark, pop-driven musical that has a score by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) and Bill Russell (Elegies for Angels...), who also wrote the book. This new, darker approach to the material incorporates new songs as well as additional biographical details of the Hilton twins' life and historical figures of the era. spoke with Side Show's Tony Award-nominated librettist Russell about what the creative team learned in La Jolla and what changes are in store for audiences in Washington, D.C. this summer.

What was it like to return to the rehearsal room and step back into this material?
Bill Russell: It was just the most magical experience. It's just one of the most special experiences, not only of my career, but also of my life. We had started the project with Bill Condon in 2007, and then there was a big break because he did the "Twilight" movies, but to be back with this material and with this incredible cast and creative team was just really, really special and thrilling.

You've been workshopping this new script for a few years. Were there surprises in the rehearsal room?
BR: Oh yes, always. You can only go so far imagining what something is going to be like on paper. We had made so many changes on paper that it wasn't until we started putting it on stage that we made a lot of discoveries. A huge amount of changes [were made] during the rehearsal process. There were days where we would have morning versions of the pages, afternoon versions, and then a third version by the end of the day. We had the most creative, open experience. Bill Condon is just so wonderful, and he is open to suggestions form everyone.

Unlike the initial premiere in 1997, which opened cold on Broadway, you have the chance to work on this new version of Side Show away from New York audiences and really take time with the show's development.
BR: The La Jolla Playhouse has a long history of developing new work, and we consider this a new work, in a way. It is substantially different. It was starting from scratch again. We weren't working off of anything that had happened before. We had done a number of full cast readings and quite a number of various workshop productions [leading up to the 1997 Broadway run]. But it's different being able to work on it out of town when you don't have the same stuff from daily life intruding. You're in this bubble of just doing the show.

This production has a darker approach, physically, based on the images we've seen.
BR: Bill hired Hollywood make-up people to do some of the freaks, which is spectacular. I love the look of this. It's just so beautiful to watch. We're tweaking some design; we did sort of go over budget on the set, but now I think we can realize that a little more fully what we are able to do.


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