I always find it inspiring to see misfits on stage—not shiny happy people—and so I was particularly intrigued to see the buzzed-about revival of Side Show, the Bill Russell (book and lyrics)–Henry Kreiger (music) 1997 show about real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.
The twins (Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet)) were sold at birth by a mother who, according to program notes, "saw dollar signs the moment she laid eyes on them." They began training as performers and throughout their adolescence performed in a traveling freak show. They moved up the showbiz ladder a few rungs, but, as we learn in Side Show, they struggled to find their identity and true happiness.
In the musical, we see that these girls are yearning for freedom, but what does that mean? Is it being on your own, being an individual? They ask, "who will love me as I am," and all the freaks appear. So is freedom finding your home? Like Pippin says, "If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free." Perhaps Daisy and Violet have already found their home, the place they belong, beside each other.
They long for romantic relationships, though, and find themselves in a love-pentagon, of sorts. In the freak show (run by their legal guardian, Sir (Robert Joy)), Daisy and Violet are looked after by Jake (David St. Louis), who's also a performer in the show. Jake is sweet on Violet but much too polite to make a move. Enter Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), vaudeville performers and producers who discover Daisy and Violet and help them along their career. Violet has eyes for Buddy while Terry and Daisy long to be alone together. (Terry expresses his desires in "Private Conversations," one of the few moments in the show that doesn't work—the extreme passion in Silverman's performance seems to come out of left field, making the sequence feel unnatural.) It sounds a bit like a soap opera, but, for the most part, the story is told with sincerity and is focused on Daisy and Violet learning to be comfortable in their own skin.
Press surrounding this revival says director Bill Condon (who also provided additional book material) reimagined the musical, though having never seen it I can't vouch for those claims. I can tell you that the people sitting near me when I saw this on the eve of Election Day (the culmination of the greatest freak show on earth), pointed out variations in specific plot points or character background.
Reimagined or not, this beautiful production of Side Show, directed with affection and sensitivity, resonates deeply. It's easy to see that the freak show hasn't gone away, it's just changed venues. Consider the freak shows people can't get enough of in the form of reality TV. Who's freakier: the person who welcomes cameras into her home or the person who commits to memory everything the cameras record?
Indeed, the Hilton twins' story makes you wonder what it means to be a freak. Daisy and Violet are "freaks," as are the Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio) and the Tattoo Girl (Hannah Shankman) and the Half Man/Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh) and the requisite Bearded Lady (Blair Ross). But what is actually freaky about them?
Does being different, like Daisy and Violet, make you a freak? Does being alone? Or is being a freak really just a state of mind? If you refuse to be defined or restrained by another person's definition or expectations, if you love yourself for who you are, are you still a freak? Maybe you're simply one of a kind, like Daisy and Violet.
(Special shout out to costume designer Paul Tazwell; special make-up effects designers Dave Elsey and Lou Elsey; wig and hair designer Charles G. Lapointe; and make-up designer Cookie Jordan for making the freaks look gorgeous.)