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

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

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

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.

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie
Photo by Kevin Berne

How did La Jolla audiences respond to this new version? Side Show in New York was one of those shows that really captured many theatregoers and quickly developed a devoted fan base.
BR: The audiences were just fantastic — they were so into it. People are so moved by this show. The cast says that they considered the best audience they had was a morning matinee for high school students. They said it was just electric. They did that performance a couple weeks into the run, so a lot of high school kids started coming. They heard about it from their friends, and that was exciting. I always felt that if there was any time you felt like a freak, it was high school. I've always felt that high school kids related to this show. It was thrilling that we were able to reach them.

You've said before, on paper, a musical about conjoined twins isn't the easiest sell to the ticket-buying public.
BR: It's always a bit of a hard sell. Some people are really turned off by the idea of the "Siamese twins," or sideshow attractions. They say, "Oh, I don't want to see a show about that.” But once they're there, they really come around. La Jolla has a large subscription audience, and they really embraced it.

Did you use La Jolla audiences and their reactions to help guide you on what was working with this new version? Were there talkbacks?
BR: Yes, we had a couple talkbacks, which were very helpful, but we got a lot of feedback filtered through a lot of different people. Of course, the Playhouse staff, their patrons tell them things, and we read the reviews. We also have a lot of our own ideas, and we're going to definitely make changes for Washington. But we learned so much doing this, because, for one thing, it's a whole new [show]. The ensemble tracks are very different [new characters have been added]. That's one thing that's very hard to figure out in advance. You get in the room and realize that this person has to make a costume change so we can't have them onstage in this number. Those kinds of things became much clearer over the run, so we're going to make some adjustments that way.

There's a significant amount of new material for this version of Side Show. Did all of it work, or will some of it go?
BR: Some of it is probably going to go. We learned a lot. It wasn't always so much about how audiences reacted to it, more like how we were feeling about the material. The material was landing really well. We have this flashback sequence that audiences are really responding to, back to their childhood. I've always said that the hardest part about writing about the Hilton sisters is that they led such dramatic lives that it's hard to know what to leave out. It was nice to be able to explore their childhood a little bit.

What are your goals for the Kennedy Center engagement?
BR: We just want to improve on what we have. We are going to be doing some rewriting, as well as [implementing] some new design changes we want to make. There's going to be a larger orchestra there, so that has to be taken care of. It's so great that we have this next step, and it's great that we have this break now so that we have this time to work on it. Henry and I were talking at the closing about all the changes we were planning to make and continue to make throughout the progress. And, I said, "At least we're not doing this in Boston!"

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