Side Show first opened on Broadway in 1997 and immediately won a small group of loyal fans. Based on the true lives and careers of Violet and Daisy Hilton, Side Show tells the story of two conjoined twins who escape a Depression-era side show and become national celebrities with their own vaudeville act. The original show, written by Bill Russell and composed by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) only ran for 91 performances, but put names like Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Norm Lewis, and Hugh Panaro on the map.
The revival glamorizes the otherwise minimalist original, and adds a high-value production quality to the show’s set and costumes. Whereas the 1997 show left much of the character’s abnormalities to the audience’s imagination (à la Sutton Foster in Violet), the new Bill Condon-directed production leaves very little to be wanted in terms of visual imagery. Innovative costumes and latex masks by Paul Tazewell and a cinematic-quality special effects team delightfully re-create The Geek, the Reptile Man, the Three Legged Man, and other oddities on the stage. Violet’s and Daisy’s costumes are eye-pleasing and magical, sexy, vintage, and flashy all at the same time. Set design by David Rockwell is also impressive and diverse. Every set was a hit, expressive in an of themselves, from the shadowy carnival stage at the show’s start to the glamorous musical number backdrops in the second act.
Side Show’s cast is also wonderful. The bill calls for two look-a-like ladies who can belt their faces off, and that they do. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett are natural fits for each other. Their voices can reach the high-octane power needed for their numbers, and yet remain clearer and more purely melodious than other Broadway powerhouses like Idina Menzel or Audra McDonald. Somehow they make it seem effortless to not only reach the high standards expected of their voices, but also to do it all in perfect sync with each other. There’s a reason, though not a very good one, why the original production had to cancel a performance when Emily Skinner (Daisy) got a sore throat. I don’t know how an understudy could manage the insane expectations of the role without having practiced well in advance, though you’d assume a Broadway production would prepare for those types of things. Robert Joy is excellent as the villainous side show boss, Sir, and the ensemble is a marvel in itself.
And yet, despite these shining examples of what a fully-fledged Broadway design and company should look like, I still could not in good conscience recommend going to see this show. We know Side Show has its fans. Rave reviews have been flooding in. Comparisons have been made to Sondheim. TO SONDHEIM. And frankly, we’re baffled. And kind of angry. We’re like Madeline-Kahn-as-Miss-Scarlet-in-Clue baffled and angry. Flames, flames, flames, on the side of my face.
Because this is the worst book and lyrics I have ever seen in a Broadway show.
Unless we’re playing some kind of Brechtian mindgame, which we’re not (we are so not), lyrics are supposed to augment the feelings of the characters. They’re supposed to poeticize them. So let’s check out a few lines from “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” one of the better and most well-known of the musical numbers:
“Who will ever call to say I love you?/ Send me flowers or a telegram?/ Who could proudly stand beside me?/ Who will love me as I am?”
So… that passes for an expression of the girls’ deepest interior thoughts? “Who will change my monogram?”
Or this piece from “Say Goodbye to the Side Show:”
“Good-bye/ Good-bye, We will miss you/ Don’t cry let me kiss you/ Oh my, why should it be so hard to say good-bye/ Farewell, don’t forget us”
Add about 3 more minutes of variation on that verse and you have a song. A non-descript, extremely general, repetitive song. It’s okay to have a song about saying good-bye. In fact, there are plenty of songs about people saying good-bye. Do they literally just say “Good-bye, we’ll miss you!” for three-and-a-half minutes? No. Exception: the von Trapp children, and that’s not a real good-bye song. Can you imagine the kids singing a somber “So Long, Farewell” to say good-bye to Maria? Well, that’s Side Show.
But wait, we have similes too!
“Like a fish plucked from the ocean/ Tossed into a foreign stream/ Always knew that I was different/ Often fled into a dream… Like an odd exotic creature/On display inside a zoo/ Hearing children asking questions/ Makes me ask some questions too/ Could we bend the laws of nature?/ Could a lion love a lamb?”
It’s like Wicked‘s “For Good,” except Side Show doesn’t come anywhere near Schwartz’s resonant, hearty poetry. There’s a problem when your vaudeville act numbers (“1+1=3” and “Typical Girls Next Door”) have richer, more focused verses than your expressive ballads. I truly felt that after each song, I came out knowing exactly as much about these characters’ interior lives as I did when the song started. It’s understandable, given that the girls lack any kind of individualized characterization. Okay, sure, guess what? They’re different from each other. Their opposite personalities are the subject of “Like Everyone Else,” a song that is just about as unique and revealing as the others I’ve mentioned. Violet is the ying to Daisy’s yang. One’s an ambitious, adventurous flirt. The other’s a mousy homebody. Davie and Padgett play the personalities off each other well enough–their performances are certainly laudable. But the script hardly calls these factors into question. Houdini shows up at one early point and explains that the girls can find contemplative solitude in their own thoughts. But for the rest of the show, do we hear any kind of riveting introspection on their behalf? Do we learn any more about what make these women tick?
I would say that Violet and Daisy are literally attached at the hip, and I will, because that’s about all that passes for observation in this dearth of a story. We are reminded time and time again in a completely observational, non-kitschy way how close they are, they do everything together, they can’t escape from each other, they will never leave each other. Can’t we explore the greatness of a sisterly bond without getting repeatedly smacked over the head with this huge lazy, blunt, weighty shovel that passes for a book/lyrics? How are we supposed to celebrate their togetherness when we never even see them apart?
The musical keeps telling you they’re different, but shows us very little of that dynamic, nor does it show those traits in conflict with each other. Other than a tepid love triangle, there is nothing at stake for these young women, or at least the book doesn’t make anything seem at stake for them. I would imagine that romance would be a problem for them (it certainly is for their suitors), that Violet might feel unfairly forced into the self-aware performance business by her attention-seeking sister, that their celebrity status, their sham marriage, and the exoticization of their bodies might be extremely fruitful soil to till for the duration of the musical, especially because of its relevance to contemporary culture (Kim K, anyone?). Their careers and love lives are gold-laden mountains just waiting for a smart miner to pick them apart. But no such mining occurs. In this show, bland, soulless lyrics stand in for emotions, soaring duets hit vocal heights and the design would pass for a good movie set, but we’re not allowed to explore a theme or two? We can’t get a song that does a bit more than explain what we’re seeing on stage in the most literal, un-embellished way possible? (Vulture writer Jesse Green smartly calls it “emphasitis.”)
Maybe we’re missing something that other reviewers have joyously found. Maybe the positive reviews link back to some nostalgic feeling for the original. Maybe Side Show‘s revival is a symbolic victory for all the Broadway shows that have closed over the years without having a chance to succeed, and that makes those in the business look favorably upon it. Maybe I’m just not “accepting it for what it is” (Embarrassingly shallow? A piece of camp that doesn’t realize it’s camp?) and once I make peace with the “schlocky lyrics” and “plotholes” (you mean, gaping open wounds?), I’ll join theatre geeks in their nearly universal renown.