Welcome Back to "The Freak Show": A History of Side Show's Journey To and From Broadway

News   Welcome Back to "The Freak Show": A History of Side Show's Journey To and From Broadway
It all started back in 1992 or so when director Robert Longbottom got a call from a friend who told him he needed to watch a certain terrible movie immediately.

Robert Longbottom
Robert Longbottom Photo by Matthew Blank

The movie was "Chained for Life," a exploitive 1951 Grade-Z cheapie that might not even have made it to direct-to-video distribution nowadays. But Longbottom’s friend was certain that the real-life story about singing, dancing, musical-instrument-playing conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1968) — glimpsed behind the movie’s tawdry made-up murder plot — would somehow make a great Broadway musical.

From that unpromising start sprang Side Show, currently on Broadway in a multi-million-dollar revival.

Chained for Life, starring the actual Hilton Sisters playing themselves, is available on YouTube. In it, they sing two of their signature songs, “Never Say You’ll Never Fall in Love" and "Love Thief.”

Longbottom, a former Broadway dancer, was known at the time primarily for staging the musical Pageant, which was presented Off-Broadway at the Blue Angel in 1991. Side Show would mark his Broadway directing debut.

He brought aboard Henry Krieger, best known for his Tony-nominated score to the 1981 musical Dreamgirls. The first time Krieger saw Daisy and Violet was watching "Chained for Life" and the horror film "Freaks," which he described “as a painful experience. “My reaction was, my goodness, this is so unusual and so concentrated emotionally and psychologically. It’s something that grabs your attention or makes you avert your eyes — or both.”

He agreed with Longbottom that the story had the potential to be a good musical because it had one central quality that appealed to him. “You always have to ask yourself, will such-and-such sing? Clearly, this material sang to me.”

Bill Russell and Henry Krieger
Bill Russell and Henry Krieger Photo by Timmy Blupe

Highs and Lows

He and his writing partner Bill Russell began delving into the lives of the Hilton Sisters. Their research found twin biographies that had moments of brilliance and moments of terrible darkness. The twins were born in England to an unmarried grocery clerk named Kate Skinner, who was repulsed and overwhelmed by them and more or less sold them, like a peculiarly-shaped object, to the midwife who assisted in the birth. The midwife, Mary Hilton (not of the hotel Hiltons, unfortunately), raised them to be displayed in what the parlance of the time called “freak shows.” That matter-of-fact cruelty would be captured in the musical’s opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.”

Ironically, while the sisters were joined literally at the hip and buttock — their pelvis bones were fused on one side — each had a full set of vital organs and separating them would be accomplished fairly easily today.

The Hilton Sisters achieved a high level of success during the 1920s. Thanks to their musical talents, they were able to graduate from circuses to the stage, and for a time reportedly were one of the highest-paid acts in vaudeville. They even finally liberated themselves legally from their adopted mother. But their fortunes plunged after vaudeville expired in the 1930s, and they never were able to make the transition to radio, movies or television that so many of their contemporaries did. They were featured in the Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 horror film, "Freaks," which did not help their goal of moving into the mainstream. Now considered a classic, "Freaks" was banned for many years because it used real circus “freaks,” who shocked some delicate sensibilities.

The sisters put up some of their own dwindling capital to help make their “comeback” with "Chained for Life" in 1951, but the movie failed at the box office, leaving them deeper in the hole than before. In the end, the Hilton Sisters went broke and were working as grocery store clerks when they died within a few days of each other in 1968. Writing and Casting

The idea of a “Siamese Twin” musical appealed to the writers on several levels. Russell, who grew up gay in the cowboy country of Wyoming, said the story came naturally to him. “It was definitely my way into this story. I was very effeminate when I was younger. I took a lot of abuse for that. I had no trouble identifying with these odd people because I always felt like the biggest freak in the world. Relating to them just didn’t feel like a jump at all.”

Russell and Krieger developed a story that was described at the time by Playbill as “One twin loves the limelight; the other longs for the simpler life. How they work out their conflict and find love is the story of Side Show.”

Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original production of <i>Side Show</i>
Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original production of Side Show

“Stuck With You,” was the first song they completed, followed by the show’s anthem. The second was "Who Will Love Me As I Am?," the show’s anthem, which emphatically recalls Krieger’s Dreamgirls showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Krieger said that while the show is set mainly in the 1930s, he made no attempt to write period music. “I work from character and situation. I try to find the human element that makes me sing in my heart.”

After several years of work the initial reading of the show took place at Manhattan Theatre Club. Russell recalls that the biggest challenge was finding the right pair of actresses to play the leads. “Manhattan Theatre Club said they couldn’t afford a casting director, so we’d have to kind of cast it out of our phone book. We said, ‘We can do that for everybody except the twins. We really want them to match, especially for a reading.’ So they let us have a call for that and we discovered Emily Skinner [no apparent relation to the twins’ birth mother, but an interesting coincidence]. We loved her.”

Actually, Russell recalls, they saw a lot of “individually wonderful divas that we couldn’t match up with other people.” For the second reading they were able to use Johnson-Liff, then one of the top casting agencies for Broadway musicals at the time (it dissolved in 2002). Russell said, “They said, ‘We have the perfect match for her [Skinner]. Her name is Alice Ripley — but unfortunately she just got married and she’s on her honeymoon.’ So it wasn’t until a year after that when we were doing another reading that we brought Alice in, and she knocked us out. We then we brought Emily in with her, and the first time they sang together was one of the great moments of this production in that audition, when they sang ‘I Will Never Leave You’ and ‘Who Will Love Me As I Am?' It was goosebump-inducing.”

Read the 1997 Interview with Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, Two Hopefuls on the Verge of Stardom and Failure in Side Show “A Short Life”

The Broadway production opened Oct. 16, 1997 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Reviews for the two leads and the score were strong, but the show’s storytelling was faulted, and neither Ripley nor Skinner were the star draws they are today.

“It had a short life,” Krieger said “We were bookended by The Lion King (Nov. 13, 1997) and Ragtime (Jan. 18, 1998)."

Part of the problem the problem was the show’s subject matter. “The times were not as conducive as they are today as they are for a musical with this sort of basis for the story,” Krieger said.

Some shows are very difficult to market. For example, it’s almost impossible to describe the plot of Sweeney Todd and make it sound like a fun evening’s entertainment. But with Sweeney you can always say that it’s kind of a horror movie with songs and leave it at that. Side Show is trickier.

Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley
Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley Joan Marcus

Side Show was quickly identified as the “Siamese Twin” musical, which made some potential audiences uncomfortable. The term “Siamese Twin” refers to the most famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, who toured with Barnum in the 19th century — not because Siamese, or more properly “Thai” people, have any special propensity for the syndrome.

The original poster for Side Show depicted a red tent flap like the side of a tent at an old-time circus side show, with a suggestion of crowds beyond. The term “side show” goes back to circus days when the main event took place in the “big top”— that is the biggest tent in the traveling circus, inside a ring of seats. Really big circuses had two or even three such rings, giving rise to the expression “three-ring circus.” However, outside this main tent were smaller tents with specialty acts to which audience members could wander before or after the main show in the big tent. These shows — magicians, jugglers, belly dancers and, yes, “freaks” that were perhaps not considered fit for the entire family — on the side of the main tent were thus literally “side shows.”

So although the original production’s poster showed a neutral-looking flap from a side-show tent, the show itself could not escape being billed as the “Siamese Twin” musical. The term “conjoined twins” was just coming into usage at the time, and may still be unfamiliar to many people.

Hoping for a “Miracle”

In the final weeks cast members launched an unusual publicity campaign — optimistically dubbed “The Miracle on 46th Street” — to save the show, one of the earliest recorded such campaigns on internet message boards, then still in their infancy. The cast also went out in the December cold urging people on the TKTS line to make Side Show their choice, But after struggling through the holidays, the show closed Jan. 4, 1998 after just 91 performances, at a loss of $6.8 million. Read the Playbill.com feature: As Side Show Bows Again on Broadway, Its Writers Recall the Last Performance of the 1997 Original

During this period, the show acquired a special fan: Evan Gadda, a Reno, NV, man with cerebral palsy and who got around in a motorized chair. He first saw the show in a segment broadcast on Rosie O’Donnell’s TV talk show. Despite his distance from Broadway, he became a cheerleader for the show on the web to the point where the original cast adopted him, and an anonymous donor paid for a plane ticket so he could see the show before it closed.


Read Playbill.com’s original 1998 story on Gadda’s big night.

For a while, before and after the closing, the Side Show producers were saying that the show was only on hiatus and would reopen after they found additional financing. In the event, the reopening never materialized.

That spring the show was nominated for four Tony Awards, Best Musical, Best Score (Krieger), Best Book (Russell) and a conjoined nomination for Ripley and Skinner for Best Actress in a Musical, but, steamrolled by Lion King and Ragtime, didn’t win any. Skinner and Ripley lost to Natasha Richardson in Cabaret.

Second Show

But the story of Side Show wasn’t quite over. As with many short-run shows, the original cast album helped keep the spark of a Side Show mini-cult lit. It captured the performances of Jeff McCarthy, Hugh Panaro, Norm Lewis and Ken Jennings, but mainly the volcanic central performances of Ripley and Skinner. "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" became a popular audition piece for belters. It was also done in San Francisco, Denver, Washington, D.C. and at colleges around the country. In the post-“Let Your Freak Flag Fly” era, a major production with an extensively revised libretto was staged by Bill Condon in November 2013 at La Jolla Playhouse in California, followed by another Washington, D.C. production at the Kennedy Center. It was this version that attracted the attention of New York producers, leading to the current full Broadway revival.

Read the Playbill.com feature: Side Show Director Bill Condon Enters the Broadway Circus With Re-Imagined Cult Favorite

Meanwhile, Evan Gadda, who is still a fan and now teaches musical theatre, said he was able to see the revival during its tryout, and gave it a thumbs-up. “Longbottom, God bless him, did not understand the show,” Gadda said via Facebook messaging. “I think he wanted to razzle-dazzle, and I think the new director has taken out the razzle-dazzle and made it more human.”

He also complimented the rewrites by Russell and Krieger. “I do think it’s better,” he said. “They made a lot of changes and I think they made it more realistic.”

He said he has remained friends with Ripley and Skinner via Facebook, and said, “Of course, nobody can take the place of the original cast.”

He added, “I also think that the handicapped population is more noticeable in today's society than they were in the ’90s and maybe the audience will be more receptive to them.”

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