Over the past couple of months, I have watched American Horror Story: Freak Show, read the 80s cult classic book Geek Love, seen The Elephant Man, and also seen the Broadway revival of Side Show, which sadly closed the day after I saw it after running for only seven weeks. One might imagine I would be- and pardon the terrible pun- a bit freaked out by now. But in addition to being a very enjoyable theatergoing experience, my visit to Side Show was also good food for thought into why some shows fail and some succeed.
Side Show, which features music by Henry Krieger and book and lyrics by Bill Russell, first debuted on Broadway in 1997. It is based on the lives of 1930s conjoined twin performers Daisy and Violet Hilton. The 2014 revival iteration of the show was slightly modified, with some new songs replacing others that were cut and an overall darker tone.
Act one started slowly for me. The show begins with Daisy and Violet performing in a carnival side show, where they are soon discovered by a talent scout who wants to make them vaudeville stars. One thing the show does very well off the bat is giving Daisy and Violet very distinct personalities. Violet, played here by Erin Davie, wants the typical American dream white picket fence life with a husband while Daisy, played by Emily Padgett, wants to be a star. The performances of Davie and Padgett, along with the musical’s beautiful score, were the highlights of this production. Attached at the hip by magnets in their costumes, Davie and Padgett moved with impressive synchronicity and have truly impressive pipes.
Any sense of slowness in the plot I felt dissipated quickly once we reached the act one finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am”. As Daisy and Violet sang about their desires and fears, I found I had full body chills and tears in my eyes. The song and the moment are really powerful, and it made up for any weaknesses in the show up until that point. While the musical has some problems, mostly with the book, the highs of it are very, very high, and I definitely left the theater feeling sad that it was closing before more could experience it.
Upon thinking about it, I do understand why it closed so early. While Side Show is a cult favorite within the theater community, the average person usually has never heard of it. Also, the ending of the show is incredibly honest and melancholy, and I can see how the lack of a traditional happy ending would be off-putting to the average theatergoer. The show was also housed in the St. James Theater, which is one of the larger Broadway houses and therefore very difficult to sell out. American Idiot also called the St. James home and I maintain it could have run for much longer than a year in a smaller house.
What a lot of musicals that lack title name recognition do is stunt cast a big name star to sell tickets. Side Show opted to not go this route. While I personally love that they cast Ms. Davie and Ms. Padgett, both of whom have solid Broadway resumes and are incredibly talented, it is interesting to consider how things may have changed had they decided to cast one or more of the roles with a celebrity. The Elephant Man features similar subject matter and an even more depressing ending, but the casting of Bradley Cooper has made the recent revival a sell-out hit. When packaged together, the elements of Side Show simply weren’t easily marketable to a wide audience. This combined with opening in a tourism-heavy time of year when casual visitors to New York are much more likely to choose Aladdin or Matilda and facing an uphill battle in a 1,710 seat theater probably ultimately led to the show’s premature demise. It is also unfortunate that closing so early may cause Ms. Davie and Ms. Padgett to be forgotten come the Tony Awards because their performance, which will be eligible for the same joint nomination Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner received for playing these roles in 1997, was very worthy.
While Side Show is unfortunately no longer playing on Broadway, luckily this production made a cast recording that is available for purchase. Stay tuned for my review of the final show I saw on my trip, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time!