Interview by Joey Sims
Tony-nominated writer and lyricist Bill Russell is getting ready to take Birdland audiences on a special journey through his “Side of the Show.”
Russell penned the book and lyrics for Side Show, the beloved cult musical based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who toured across the country as stage performers. Though both Side Show‘s original Broadway run in 1997 and its 2014 revival closed quickly, the musical has garnered critical acclaim and a passionate fan following.
The one-night concert, playing Monday September 25th at Birdland Jazz Club, offers an intimate look at the show’s development, recounting “the writing, casting, triumphs and mishaps along the way.” Performers Erin Davie, Charity Angél Dawson, Jenna Pastuszek, Jason Veasey and more will join Russell throughout the evening to perform songs from the show.
The Broadway Blog spoke with Russell about the inspiration behind Side Show, the show’s legacy, and what to expect from the concert.
How were you first inspired to write Side Show?
Robert Longbottom, who directed the original production, told me about this terrible movie called Chained for Life which starred two real conjoined twins who sang, and danced, and played musical instruments.
At the time, in certain downtown clubs I was known to frequent, there were these two guys–I only recently found out they were Broadway dancers–who would go around dressed identically and like they were attached at the hip, and would do these little dance routines. The first time I ever saw them, they were in pigtails and they were wearing lederhosen. So I thought of them, and the image stuck with me.
How many years passed between that first conversation and the Broadway production?
Twelve years. It was 1985 when that conversation happened. And then in late 1991, my show Pageant was doing very well off-Broadway, and it was time to move on a new project. I had always wanted to write with Henry Krieger [the composer of Side Show, best known for his work on Dreamgirls].
So I sent him a fax…just to really date this story. He immediately called me and said, “You wrote one of my favorite songs.” I was flabbergasted, because I hadn’t had that much recorded at that point. But he had been sent a bootleg copy of the last song from my AIDs piece Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, the song “Learning To Let Go.” And for the two weeks prior to my fax, he had been playing it every day. So, it felt like it was meant to be.
What particular moments from the show’s development stick out in your memory?
Casting the twins was the trickiest thing, in both productions. You can have two incredible singers, but they have to look right together, and move right together.
For the first reading we did of the revised version, we had cast Erin Davie and Betsy Wolfe. And we loved them, and thought they worked great together. But once we had dates for these out of town tryouts, Betsy was not available. And we [really struggled] to find a Daisy to match our Violet. But then Emily Padgett came in, and when they sang together, it was just magical. They have identical profiles, and the voices blended so beautifully.
The first person who heard the material was Robin Wagner [scenic designer on the original production]. He asked, “How do you see them connecting?” And we had just thought their costumes would be sewn together. And he said, “Well, the theater is all about imagination, so I think they should just stand by each other, and you can let the audience create the connection.” Which completely blew our minds.
As it turned out, it would have been completely impractical to sew them together, because every moment they’re not on stage they are backstage tearing off wigs and costumes–it could never have worked. But people absolutely believed they were sewn together. I had people telling me they could see the Velcro at certain moments. Well, there was no Velcro!
Both productions had critical success and resonated hugely with audiences, but never found commercial success. Will you get into that in your concert?
Oh yes—that is the story, the story is about a flop. At least a flop as defined by, not returning to its original investment, and Side Show did not in either case. But there are many well known musicals that did not return their initial investment. Certainly in terms of how the show affects people, I do not consider it a flop. Over the years I have gotten so much feedback about how much this show means to people. And that’s just the most gratifying thing that a writer can have.
In particular, the show’s themes of being an outcast and a “freak” have really resonated with queer audiences.
I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I was born in Deadwood. My grandparents were cattle ranchers over the border in Wyoming. Everybody called my father “Cowboy,” because he was one. And I, in that hyper-macho atmosphere, felt like the biggest freak in the world.
So when I started exploring this story, I just felt right at home. And yes, being gay was my connection to that world and that metaphor. But I don’t like to limit it to that. Everybody has their own connection. Everybody feels like a freak on some level. I think it can be a metaphor for any of the ways that people are different. But of course I’m glad that gay people relate to it in that way.
Do you have a preferred version of Side Show, between the original production and the revised 2014 version?
I am proud of both of them. But when we had the chance to do the “revisal” with Bill Condon, who I had long admired, we reexamined every note, every syllable, every word of it. It turned into years of work. But it was gratifying, and I do feel that it’s a stronger version. He really helped focus the storytelling. So I do prefer it. But, there are things about the original…I mean, the hardest thing for me was losing “Tunnel of Love,” but there were good reasons we did.
Fans will form such strong attachments to particular versions of shows. I especially love the song “All In the Mind,” from the 2014 version, where Houdini teaches the twins how to find a kind of privacy within their own minds. But I know people who really dislike that song.
Right, and a lot of people discovered Side Show through that first cast recording, so they’re very attached to it. And I understand that! But I love the recording of the revival as well.
We are doing “All in the Mind” at my show–but Charity Angel Dawson is going to sing it! It’s written for a man. We’re going to find an interesting new arrangement.
Bill Russell: My Side of the Show plays at Birdland Jazz Club next Monday, September 25th at 7pm. Tickets are available here.