From Side Show to "American Horror Story": America's "Freak Show" Fixation

News   From Side Show to "American Horror Story": America's "Freak Show" Fixation
America's longheld fascination with side show entertainment and its assortment of cheek-flushing moments that blend brilliance with the bizarre are central to major plot lines on stage and screen this season. "American Horror Story: Freak Show," to The Elephant Man, Side Show, Pippin and beyond, invite audiences to peek inside the tent.

* The circus has long been a part of the theatre tradition. In the early days of Broadway, from the late nineteenth century through to the early twentieth, vaudeville and burlesque, themselves estranged cousins of the circus, dominated the New York entertainment scene. When film emerged as a cheaper alternative to live amusements and freak shows in the 1920s and 30s, the vaudeville circuit faced its demise; focus shifted instead to musical revues and light musical fare, including the shows of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, which eventually morphed into the modern American musical thanks in part to works like Show Boat and Oklahoma!.

Though traditional theatre moved in a more narrative-driven direction, the circus as its own art form never really died out. The circuses started by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey in the late nineteenth century merged in 1919 and are still touring today. Americans have long had a fixation with the circus, which, aside from featuring clowns and circus animals, allows everyday folk a chance to explore the extraordinary aspects of humanity, both in terms of unusual strength and ability (fire-eaters and sword-swallowers) but also unique, "freakish" bodily differences (conjoined twins and bearded ladies).

Since moving on from the days of vaudeville, mainstream theatre (and TV) has continued to borrow from circuses for inspiration, both in terms of subject matter and style. Click through to read about current theatre offerings and one TV show that are bringing circus back for theatre fans this fall.

Kathy Bates in "American Horror Story: Freak Show"
Kathy Bates in "American Horror Story: Freak Show" Photo by Frank Ockenfels/FX

"American Horror Story: Freak Show"

Why does "American Horror Story: Freak Show" belong on a list of circus-inspired entertainment for theatre fans? Despite being a TV show, the horror series created by Ryan Murphy ("Glee," "The Normal Heart") and Brad Falchuk features many theatre actors and actresses, including Sarah Paulson, Frances Conroy, Finn Wittrock, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange in its current season.

"American Horror Story," which features a different theme and different characters for each new season, this year centers on a group of misbegotten circus freaks in Jupiter, Florida in the 1950s. Lange plays Elsa Mars, the proprietress of the freak show, Bates is her right-hand bearded lady and Paulson is one of the main attractions, a two-headed woman on the run from the law. Much of the show is set in and around the tents and trailers that make up the circus's makeshift environs. The show also focuses on a killer clown, Twisty (John Carroll Lynch), whose murderous spree shakes the town of Jupiter and forces authorities to impose a curfew on the town that impedes Elsa's already-struggling business.

The show itself is a weird, brilliant hybrid of classic horror tropes, modern psychosexual horror elements, and anachronistic musical moments (as when Lange and Paulson sing songs by David Bowie, Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey). As an exploration of freak shows, though, and their tendency both to exalt and degrade their performers, the show is spot-on. Throughout the season thus far Elsa’s freaks are seen by most of those outside of their conglomeration of tents as liars, cheats or worse. It’s by humanizing those perceived as abnormal – even a murderous clown – that the show finds its most poignant moments.

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie Photo by Joan Marcus

Side Show

When Side Show first opened on Broadway in 1997, it quickly gained an ardent fan base but struggled to gain an audience and closed a little more than three months after it began its run. The show, based on real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton who toured in the 1930s as part of the North American circuit of side shows, centers on the sisters' rise to fame as performers juxtaposed against the difficulty of their private lives. In the show, both Daisy and Violet take a liking to separate men and have to struggle with the consequences of being attached in a world of individual choice (a struggle shared by Paulson's characters in "American Horror Story").

Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical portrays Daisy and Violet as vibrant individuals despite their physical restraints and challenges assumptions about the lives of those who, through their exploitation on stage, have been, in essence, dehumanized. Since its Broadway premiere, the show has been revised for a new production that began at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and played the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. before transferring to Broadway, where it is now in previews in anticipation of opening night Nov. 17. The new production is directed by Bill Condon, who's best known as a film director and screenwriter, having helmed the film version of "Dreamgirls," which also features music by Krieger. Condon's take on the piece aims for a darker, grittier look at the freak show characters created for the original production.

Bradley Cooper in <i>The Elephant Man</i>
Bradley Cooper in The Elephant Man Photo by T. Charles Erickson

The Elephant Man

A straight play with a similar biographical approach to a well-known freak persona, The Elephant Man, is also making a return to Broadway this month in a production starring Bradley Cooper as "human curiosity" John Merrick alongside Patricia Clarkson.

English-born Merrick, whose real name was Joseph, was a severely deformed man with a number of protrusions and enlarged body parts that made it difficult for him to hold down a steady job. In early adulthood, he met with a circus exhibitor who agreed that he should tour Europe, which he did before his death in 1890 at the age of 27. The play by Bernard Pomerance (directed in this production by Scott Ellis), features a unique take on the character of Merrick, who is portrayed without the use of makeup or prosthetics. Instead of attempting to visually recreate Merrick's look, the actor portraying him must use words and his physical performance to convey the difficult life of the so-called "elephant man." By casting traditionally handsome actors, including Cooper in this current production, the play is able to hold a mirror up to audiences and challenge assumptions about appearances, suggesting through the on stage characterization of Merrick the inner beauty of a character seen by the world at large as an unattractive freak. At Cooper's suggestion, the Booth Theatre, where this current revival is playing, is adorned with period details, including nineteenth century-inspired sideshow posters and vintage light fixtures, adding to the immersive experience.

A scene from <i>Pippin</i>
A scene from Pippin Photo by Joan Marcus


Circus stunts weren't part of the original Broadway production of Pippin in 1972, which featured direction and choreography by Bob Fosse and utilized Fosse's angular, precise dance style to modernize its setting in the Middle Ages. Set in the court of Charlemagne and featuring a pop-inflected score by Stephen Schwartz, Pippin's 2013 revival was reimagined by director Diane Paulus as if the musical's plot were taking place in a circus, with the leading player (played by Ben Vereen originally and Patina Miller in the revival) acting as a kind of boater-wearing carnival barker, egging on the other characters, especially Pippin, until the musical's climactic finale, in which the trappings of the bright-colored tent that dominates the stage are stripped away to reveal the artifice of the circus as a whole.

Though Paulus’ production ends by revealing the artifice of the circus, the visual imagery of the show’s circus elements overall is bright and acrobatic, featuring impressive feats from its agile cast. To achieve the circus effects in her production, Paulus enlisted the help of Gypsy Snider of the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main, performers from which are also part of the cast. Andrea Martin as Pippin's grandmother, Berthe, even took home a Tony Award for her elaborate trapeze performance of "No Time At All," which found the actress suspended, sometimes upside down, above the stage as she sang.

Dee Roscioli, Sarah Dacey Charles, Alex Goley and Noah Plomgren in <i>The Circus in Winter</i>
Dee Roscioli, Sarah Dacey Charles, Alex Goley and Noah Plomgren in The Circus in Winter Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The Circus in Winter

A brand-new circus-themed musical, The Circus in Winter, is now playing at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut. The show, which was developed at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) conference in New York in 2012, is based on a "novel-in-stories" by Cathy Day about a troupe of circus performers who set up camp for the winter each year in a small Indiana town. Natural disaster and the mistreatment of animals factor into the real-life challenges facing the circus over the years. The musical’s creators sought to emphasize the hardscrabble existence of a circus over the course of several decades as the business adapts and changes. The score, by Ben Clark, features a folk rock-inspired sound that's a cross between Spring Awakening's indie rock edge and The Burnt Part Boys' Appalachian twang. Featuring a book by Hunter Foster and Beth Turcotte, the show explores the lives of various troupers, including an acrobat, clowns, a former slave named Pearly and the owners of the fictional Great Porter Circus (which was based on the real-life Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the second-largest circus after Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey in the peak of its powers). Though it's aiming for a full New York production down the line, The Circus in Winter is currently playing at Goodspeed through Nov. 16 in a production directed by Joe Calarco and choreographed by Spencer Liff.

(Richard Patterson is a critic and editor for Exeunt Magazine as well as a playwright and lyricist-in-training. Visit him at and follow @broadwaygayby on Twitter.)

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