In 1997, a little musical opened on Broadway, gained a lot of momentum from an enthusiastic fan base and then closed after a short 31 previews and 91 performances. This musical was Side Show, featuring music by Henry Krieger (of Dreamgirls fame) and book and lyrics by Bill Russell. The piece told the tragic true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, examining the life of two distinct individuals who were forced by nature to share every moment of their lives together. It was a compelling and courageous idea for a musical, and Robert Longbottom's production is remembered best for its seamless flow and for the breathtaking, Tony-nominated performances of Alice Ripley (Violet) and Emily Skinner (Daisy).
Flash-forward to 2014, and a re-imagined Side Show comes to Broadway via the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center. Bill Condon directed the much-revised production, delving into the darker and richer aspects of the material's potential. This time around, Erin Davie (Violet) and Emily Padgett (Daisy) portrayed the duo to similar acclaim as their originators. Hopes were high that Side Show had finally found an audience and, through its revisions, solved some of the supposed problems of the original production. Despite generally enthusiastic notices, this revival ran for 21 previews and 56 performances before closing due to poor ticket sales.
Now we have a new recording of the 2014 Side Show revival to affectionately place on the shelf next to our oft-played original. Which album stands out and why? What is at the heart of Side Show and which variant best interprets, with integrity and honesty, the deeply felt emotions of these two tormented women?
The show opens with the sinister "Come Look at the Freaks," which relies on dynamic interpretation for the number to work. The performers on each of these recordings take very different approaches. As "The Boss," the side show barker, Ken Jennings is antagonistic and creepy in the original, while Robert Joy sounds mysterious and theatrical for the revival. Both are quite adept at overcoming the piece's lyrical challenges, but Joy hypnotizes, while Jennings frightens. It's a matter of taste. The revival interpretation better resonates as an intriguing call for the audience to step into the world of the Side Show. We meet the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton through the sweeping "I want" song "Like Everyone Else." Violet is the more introverted, longing for a simple life of stability. The pushier Daisy wants to be a star. The song itself is haunting in how it demonstrates two people, attached for life, who desperately want diametrically opposing lives. It's the most emotionally complex song in Side Show. Skinner and Ripley sing it with such an arresting juxtaposition of hope and regret, their separateness underscored in their interpretation. For the revival, Davie and Padgett navigate the song expertly. They add a vocal interpretation that musically evokes the strain of their existence, and then creamily melds into lovely harmonies that underscore how devoted these sisters are to each other.
When enticed to leave the side show and enter into vaudeville, the sisters are warned by Jake, their closest friend, that they are better off staying put. In the song "The Devil You Know," Norm Lewis sings with such ferocity on the original recording, that his Jake is a force to be reckoned with. David St. Louis on the revival recording sounds surprisingly like Norm Lewis' Jake, although a subtler, more subdued one. It really is amazing how much the two men sound alike in vocal timbre. In the second act, both "Jakes" paint achingly powerful portraits of unrequited love when they confess their secrets to their respective Violets in "You Should Be Loved." The song is one of the more effectively subtle moments in a show that mostly brims with melodrama and tension. Lewis and St. Louis both handle the introspection and subtlety with aplomb.
The show-within-a-show numbers score beautifully on the original recording. "When I'm By Your Side" and "We Share Everything" are the best of the lot, balancing the darker aspects of Side Show with humor and a quirky, playful zest. It is a shame that they were cut for the revival, but the songs that have replaced them, "Ready to Play" and "Stuck With You," are worthy substitutes.
The most heart-wrenching song in Side Show is the duet "Who Will Love Me As I Am?", an impassioned plea for human connection sung by Daisy and Violet at the closing of Act I. Viscerally felt emotions and tightly woven harmonies abound when the duo plunges deep into the core of isolation. The ironic situation of always being tied to another human being, but feeling overwhelmingly alone when it comes to connecting with the human race at large, speaks to everyone's insecurities. This is where the heart of Side Show beats in time with ours, because we have all felt estranged from the world at one time or another. We are all freaks. We all yearn to connect. Davie and Padgett work magic with the song, applying strong vocal technique but a restrained edge to their interpretation. Both versions are arresting, but it is in the original cast recording, especially in Ripley's angst-ridden explosions and Skinner's mournful cries, that the song throbs with palpable desperation and agony.
The one song title in the score that I've never been comfortable with is "I Will Never Leave You." On its own, the song is a soaring testament to devotion and sisterly bonds. When you consider Violet and Daisy's circumstances, however, the title of this number has always seemed in poor taste to me (or perhaps a bad joke without intending to be). That being said, the song is the emotional climax of the show. The two sisters accept who they are and the limits fate has put on them. They embrace each other as the only support system that they will ever know or need. It is simultaneously tragic and beautiful. In this case, Davie and Padgett in the revival melt our hearts with a fragility and earnestness that is hard to surpass. They mine the delicate depths of the song and soar to extreme heights, navigating the piece like the roller coaster of emotions that it is. The original, though well-sung technically (and with gusto), comes across as forced and without nuance, a power ballad for two when variety better serves the complexity of emotions therein. There are obviously a great many other musical numbers and recitative sequences in Side Show. All are handled masterfully on the new recording, and truthfully, neither version is definitive. Each has its merits, and neither has anything that stands out as a misstep. In fact, both versions are quite pleasing to the ear, deftly performed, and decidedly effective. The revival CD also features a bonus track that may be of interest to collectors and rabid fans of the show, though it is not particularly a highlight next to the more exciting moments in the score.
The real contrast between these two recordings comes in the new songs added for this revival and songs that were cut. The question we need to ask is, "Did this musical require new material and if so, do these songs do anything to augment the original?" The answers are "possibly" on both accounts. "Very Well Connected" performed by talent scout Terry (Ryan Silverman) is a perky number met to entice Violet and Daisy to secure his skills in getting them booked on the Orpheum Circuit. It does little to advance his character, but does paint the possibility of options the two ladies didn't think they had, better transitioning the plot than "Crazy, Deaf, and Blind," the song it replaces.
"You Deserve a Better Life," "More Than We Bargained For," "Overnight Sensation," "Rare Songbirds on Display" and "Beautiful Day for a Wedding" have also been excised from the score, though these alterations are not damaging to the piece. If you know the original, they are noticeably missed, but have been replaced with new songs that are mostly just as effective. "The Tunnel of Love" sequence has been entirely reworked, morphing into "The Great Wedding Show." This is dramatically the smartest change in the story, a musical set-piece that sets up and dashes our ladies' hopes and plans, in the name of show business. Padgett and Davie are especially moving here. The sequence really gives them an opportunity to shine on their own terms, outside the shadow of Skinner and Ripley's dynamic (and well-remembered) performances. They sparkle when they have room to breathe their own life into Daisy and Violet. This liberation is one of the advantages of the new and revised material.
The new songs and the inclusion of moments of recitative have resulted in an album that is longer than the original. The 1997 version of Side Show featured a mere 20 tracks in comparison to the 26 included for the revival album. The additional length doesn’t do anything to make Side Show more compelling, but it does serve to provide more meaningful connections between numbers. This is especially helpful in deciphering between organic moments of musical integration and the show-within-a-show numbers.
There are some minor shifts in song titles and placement of songs, most of them to accommodate plot changes that were employed for this revival. “Say Goodbye to the Freak Show” has now become “Say Goodbye to the Side Show,” and “New Year’s Day” is now “New Year’s Eve.” Within both songs, there are some minor lyric alterations as well. A bigger shift comes when we first hear “I Will Never Leave You” in the first act as part of a disturbing flashback sequence to when British doctors are considering cutting the girls apart. It’s a tentative, frightened rendition, with lyrics the lyrics growing out of fear rather than strength.
The new recording features refurbished orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, reimagining his work on the original. Wheeler is not afraid to underscore the new Side Show with unsettling, tremulous arrangements that, somewhere underneath the vibrant, pleasing melodies, elevate the piece to something edgier than its 1997 predecessor. Though the number of instruments are paired down considerably from Wheeler’s original creations, the economy and stark sounds highlight these subtleties. They are also crisp and clear to hear, thanks to the pristine sound quality captured by Broadway Records. The orchestrations and sound are less murky than those found on the earlier inception. The cast is also slightly smaller on the new recording, but this does nothing to detract from the fullness of the sound. The new Side Show sounds just as powerful as the original, but by its own set of newly defined standards.
Side Show is one of those musicals that will never go away. In many ways, it is considered a flop, but its compelling themes and well-loved score keep it from fading into obscurity. Like The Baker's Wife, Anyone Can Whistle, The Rink, Merrily We Roll Along and The Grass Harp, new generations will discover this piece and wonder "why didn't this run?" It is destined to be reworked and re-imagined, perhaps as boldly as this revival has attempted. Though I tend to prefer the original cast recording, thanks to both of these glorious versions, future theatre lovers can revel in the passionate songs of Side Show and ponder a uniquely inspired and stalwartly intrepid musical that, despite its emotional resonance, has yet to secure its audience.