Step Right Up: 5 Reasons It’s The Right Time For The Return Of SIDE SHOW
I remember the first time I heard Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner rip through “Who Will Love Me As I Am.” When I finally took a breath, I wanted to find out all I could. At the time, I didn’t know a thing about Side Show, the 1997 musical from which the song originated, but boy – those girls had pipes and those songwriters knew what they were doing. I remember the first time I heard the lyric “who will change my monogram” as the girls discuss their longing for someone to love them unconditionally and eternally. It was brilliant. What an amazing, simple and specific idea – all the great traits of a great lyric. It was equal parts Hammerstein’s conciseness and Sondheim’s specificity.
Once I learned about this phenomenal show (by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger), I fell in love immediately. The true story of the circus life of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and the fellow ‘freaks’ that populate these dark times was fascinating. The roles of the Hilton sisters intrigued theatregoers and critics but confused Tony committee members. Either way, the show’s brief run (only 122 performances) left theatre professionals and insiders always wondering what happened.
Last week, a newly re-worked version of the show made its Broadway return at the St. James and I propose this time around may be a bit different. Here are five reasons why this Side Show might make center ring:
1. BROADWAY’S CHAMPIONING OF THE OUTCAST
The two biggest musicals of the 1997 theatre season were Disney’s behemoth The Lion King and Flaherty and Ahrens’ masterpiece Ragtime. Both shows centered around fairly traditional views of heroes (Lion King’s Greek hero journey and Ragtime’s multi-protagonist Americana struggle), so audiences and critics may not have known what to do with Side Show’s cast of circus freaks – let alone buy into the love story that its second act centered around. Since then, every kind of outcast imaginable, from Shrek to Elphaba, has proven they can headline a musical. Daisy and Violet should feel right at home.
2. LITERATURE IS FASCINATED WITH THE CIRCUS ROMANCE
The turn of the millennium saw a rise in novels set against the backdrop of the darker side of the circus. Americans were fascinated by the face behind the clown and book sales followed suit. Two great examples are Sara Gruen’s Water For Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. (Both stories would make superior source material for musicals, by the way.) The phenomenal new musical The Circus In Winter, inspired by Cathy Day’s novel and featuring a book by Hunter Foster and Beth Turcotte and Music and Lyrics by Ben Clark, continues this trend, and it’s currently playing at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre. There is something darkly romantic and eerie about a circus after hours that makes for a great backdrop for a love story.
3. POP CULTURE IS BACK UNDER THE BIG TOP
Besides the cancelled-way-too-early HBO series Carnivale, you can now explore the circus’ seedy underbelly in the latest serial installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Freak Show. And it’s no coincidence the new season’s cast is populated with Broadway actors and has already featured two full production numbers in Murphy’s signature style – like a very dark-disturbing episode of Glee (if Mr. Schu were Jessica Lange and Sue Sylvester had lobster claws, that is).
4. THAT SCORE – THAT INCREDIBLE SCORE
Song after song from the original score was fantastic. From the opening anthem “Come Look At The Freaks” to Jake’s musical warning “The Devil You Know” and the pair of pre-“Defying Gravity” power ballads that send the Hilton sisters’ voices to the rafters, the score was a sure thing.
5. A MUSICAL BIOGRAPHY (NOT BASED ON A MOVIE)
Although a revival, Side Show represents a uniquely musical story ripped from actual headlines without a film as its source material. Those are all things to celebrate.
It remains to be seen if Side Show will enchant new Broadway audiences, but the chance to see it again – perhaps in a way Russell and Krieger always intended – is exciting and a very welcome addition to the fall season.
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