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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Bill Condon has always been drawn to outsiders in his work.
He won an adapted screenplay Oscar for his breakout film, Gods and Monsters, a complex character study of Frankenstein director James Whale. His script unlocked the challenges of filming Chicago by staging the musical numbers inside the heads of its celebrity murderesses. He followed with Kinsey, about the controversial sexual behavior researcher; Dreamgirls, which revolves around a cruelly ousted Motown girl-group singer; and The Fifth Estate, about exiled whistleblower Julian Assange.
And let’s not forget those undead kids in his Twilight Saga movies.
For his Broadway directing debut, Condon has chosen two ultimate outsiders, the real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became the highest-paid act in Depression-era vaudeville and even had a brief flirtation with Hollywood in Tod Browning‘s 1932 classic, Freaks.
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The sisters are the subject of Side Show, a 1997 musical with a score by Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger and book and lyrics by Bill Russell, which was a commercial misfire the first time around but generated an enduring cult following. The creative team has worked extensively with Condon to reimagine the material for this revival. The director took time out of rehearsals to talk with THR about the show, which begins previews Oct. 28 at the St. James Theatre for a Nov. 17 opening.
How did your interest in Side Show begin?
I saw it twice in its original Broadway production, and really loved the score. Two or three years later there was a very strong production in Burbank at the Colony Theatre, so that was a chance to see and hear more of it and I became a bit of a fan. Right after Chicago, I wanted to direct a musical and I was thinking Side Show might be a movie I could get going. I got in touch with Henry and Bill and started talking about all the fascinating parts of the Hilton sisters’ life that hadn’t been included in the show. But then Dreamgirls came along as a possibility so it all got diverted, but that allowed me to work with Henry.
So you’ve pursued this project for more than a decade?
Yes, I first met with them around 2003 and we started actively working on it in 2007.
Aside from the score, what drew you to this material?
First, I was drawn to the show because it was about the Hilton twins, and my interest in the movie Freaks. But I really like that it’s a non-ironic play. The score, the whole show, it wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s something about the emotional directness of it that I really responded to, and obviously, the interest in oddities and that world. That was a big part of the equation for me to get involved and dig deeper. And maybe because it came out of the original movie impulse it has become a much more biographical musical. It’s now more rooted in the facts of their lives where it had originally been more of a backstage musical.
Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Reviews of the out-of-town tryout runs at La Jolla Playhouse and at the Kennedy Center in D.C. have said the show is now much more vivid, and richer in its character detail than the original version. Have you made it more cinematic?
I think one thing I learned from working on Chicago is there’s this paradox where if you’re actually theatrical when you’re adapting something theatrical it can make it more cinematic. When people recently have described things onstage in our show as cinematic it has nothing to do with the usual tools of cinema. We don’t have projections. We’re almost using the means you’d have available to you in 1932 if you were putting on this show, obviously enhanced technologically. But by virtue of that, in a weird way, I do think it has a cinematic feel.
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How much work did you do with Krieger and Russell to reinvent the show?
Most of that took place over a year, seven years ago. I started a kind of archeological dig through everything they had ever written for it. Before it originally opened they had been working on it for five years. So there are songs in this production that they would have written in 1992 that are now being heard for the first time. And there are many new songs and others are reordered.
How did you go about casting and directing the actresses playing the Hilton sisters, Erin Davie and Emily Padgett?
The casting was an intensive process, obviously, to find two actress who were triple-threats, who are credibly identical but also extremely different. One being the more comical, the other the more tragic. One the introvert, one the extrovert. It was interesting because Erin was someone we found when we did a workshop in 2009 [for Roundabout Theatre Company], and she really became my means to this production. We cast a wide net looking for various combinations but I really was holding out for someone who would be a good match for her. We found that and more with Emily. She’s both so similar and complementary and yet in many ways so different. Emily comes more from a dance background, with a tradition of dance musical comedy, and Erin has done more musical drama. It’s been great to watch both of them grow toward each other, which is what’s happened over this whole process. With Emily in particular, it’s been incredible watching her approach to the character deepening across the last year, continuing in these rehearsals now.
What about the physical side of directing two actors to play every scene literally stuck together?
It will be interesting to see what happens to them across a long run, because as you say, they are always feeding into each other and moving with each other. Sometimes they’re tied together, sometimes they’re magnetized and sometimes they’re doing it completely on their own. Especially in La Jolla we had them in a combined garment, and it was a lot of trouble to get out of it, so they really did spend a huge amount of time together. It’s now turned more into magnets in their costumes that allow them to connect, but also to separate easily when they’re not rehearsing.
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The path of so many under-appreciated musicals begins with a big splashy Broadway premiere and then changes direction years later with a more intimate reassessment. But you’ve gone the opposite way, taking a pared-down piece and fleshing it out into a much bigger show.
Bobbie [Robert Longbottom] is a brilliant director, and his original production is the really smart, as you say stripped-down but also abstract version of this show. It has in a weird way gone the other way. There was a great theatrical metaphor in that production, where you’d watch the actors sit down in bleachers and then take on their roles. And here, the oddities, they’re right in your face. We’re having you look at them in a very different way.
Was it a major leap to direct for the stage for the first time?
It didn’t feel so much like that I guess because Dreamgirls, by the time we were filming, we had worked on that for so many months, and so much of it was staged and lit and teched in a theater. So I felt as though I’d gotten a real taste for it. Weirdly enough, even doing the Oscars felt like doing a Broadway show that runs for one night. But it’s amazing how similar it all turns out to be. It’s all about working with a team of people to tell a story in the right way.
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What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working in this new medium?
The thing that’s rewarding about it is that the process, it all seems simultaneous. Even today, the actors are there, and you’re writing and editing at the same time, as opposed to having to wait for the edit on film. I’m actually editing the movie I made [Mr. Holmes, with Ian McKellen and Laura Linney] at the same time. You get to the last part of that process and it’s all about, “OK, there are six little beats and pauses and silences in that scene, let’s try it with four.” And it’s exactly the same in a scene for the stage when you get into the refinement process. The amazing thing is how immediate the feedback is in theater. You have an immediate sense of whether it works. That’s the best part of it and the worst part of it, because audiences sometimes don’t do exactly what you want them to do. Where you think you’ve led them they don’t go.
Was it a luxury to have two tryouts?
Oh my God, and now a third with previews in New York. We’ve had two weeks of rehearsal and then we have three weeks of tech and three weeks of previews. We’re putting in a whole new number and a new scene.
Has any particular film that you’ve worked on as a writer or director been instrumental in preparing you for this?
Yes, Dreamgirls, I would say, obviously. [Laughing] No, not Twilight, although I’m hoping that somehow we might get one tenth of that Twilight audience because Side Show speaks to something similar. There’s a great younger female audience that I know would get this show if we could get to them.
Are you concerned about the track record of the original production, which closed in less than three months despite some glowing reviews?
It’s interesting, but I guess I’m such a fan of Broadway shows, and some of my favorite ones only ran for two months while some shows I hate run for 20 years. But I didn’t realize until recently that the big hurdle is you’ve been stamped as a flop, which I think for a lot of people just means, “Oh, no.” We’re trying to turn the story away from it being the flop that’s back and move it to this production being its own thing.
There are a lot of misunderstood musicals out there. Do you think this is one of those shows that just came along at the wrong time?
I’ve talked to Bill Russell about this and he keeps talking about the “ick” factor for certain people. Now there isn’t an ick factor anymore; we celebrate that. Any show like that has got to have the audience surrogate characters to take you into the journey, into the land of the strange, and in this case they had these two romantic guys who fell in love very quickly with these girls. That was a big thing to swallow. You have to really make people believe that’s possible, and you could feel a certain part of the audience resisting it.
Is it similar to Chicago, where audiences for the original production found the show too cynical but the post-O.J. Simpson audiences who come to the revival have no problem with it?
God yes, that’s a perfect example of a show that time caught up with. I saw that show a lot of times, and there was something so dark about the Bob Fosse take on it that did make you feel kind of worn out, and then going back to it later, it felt fresh.
If Side Show works on Broadway would you like to go back to the idea of doing it as a movie?
Yes, definitely. Ironically, the big piece that pulled the financing together on this was when Universal came in on the Broadway production. They have maintained the film rights, so I would love it if it came full-circle.
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