Every so often, a show that flops hard on Broadway leaves in its aftermath a corps of fans devoted to keeping its memory alive. With shows like Candide, Merrily We Roll Along, Carrie, and countless others, these vocal proponents ensure that while the show may have closed quickly, they will not be forgotten. In the case of the most beloved of these shows, including the three I just named, their fans go so far as to spend countless hours “fixing” them, figuring out how to solve the problems that caused the shows to flop in the first place. When this works, the shows can go on to great acclaim: Hal Prince’s revision of Candide ran for years in the mid-70s, Michael Grandage’s London production of Merrily We Roll Along won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, and Carrie‘s recent off-Broadway return spawned a series of regional productions which will surely give way to high school, college, and community theater productions for years to come.
The latest cult musical to get this fan-fueled revisal treatment? Why, Side Show, of course. Originally hitting Broadway in 1997 for a scant 91 performances, the show immediately developed a vocal following thanks to beltastic, star-making performances by Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (who were jointly nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award) and a story emphasizing sisterhood and the value of outsiders (as Wicked would do far more successfully a few years later). When the original production flopped, its fans blamed the failure on the unconventionality of a show about conjoined twins; detractors blamed the failure on a muddy script and a score that asked audiences to accept conjoined twins earnestly belting the words “I Will Never Leave You” to each other.
Side Show 2.0 is currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, just outside San Diego, in a co-production that will move on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in June, 2014, with Broadway clearly the ultimate goal. The muscle behind this version of the show is writer-director Bill Condon, whom you may know from his work on the films Chicago, Dreamgirls, or the last two Twilight films. (No judgment, Bill. Okay, a little judgment, but I didn’t see any of the Twilight movies and I will admit that the trailers for the last two far outshone the trailers for the previous three.) Look, dude has an Oscar for writing Gods and Monsters, which he also directed, and which starred Ian McKellan as James Whale (director of Frankenstein and Show Boat) and featured Brendan Frasier as the kid Whale was boning and long story short it’s a film worth seeing. My point is that Condon has chops, and he’s a HUGE Side Show fan, and so when he said he wanted to direct a revised version of the show as his first stage musical, you can bet that producers lined up to make it happen.
This revisal is more revised than most. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Condon estimated that 60% of the script and score has been rewritten for this production, which makes one wonder if he didn’t have a show he liked more than 40% of to direct instead.
(The intensive remaking of the show feels particularly ironic given that Side Show‘s first act finale is called “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” Apparently the answer is not “Bill Condon.”)
I didn’t see the original production on Broadway (although I have read the script and seen a college production), so I can’t speak specifically to whether this iteration works better than the ’97 did. But taken on its own merits, it’s clear that Side Show still has a bit of transforming to do if it’s going to attempt Broadway again. It’s also clear that the matinee audience I was a part of didn’t care; they ate this sucker up.
At this point in its development, a lot of work has been done to the show to justify some of the beloved-but-giggle-inducing elements of the score. For example, how do you make “I Will Never Leave You” less eye-roll-able? Add a subplot about the potential for twin-splitting surgery, including a pre-prise (that’s like a reprise that comes before the song) set in the doctor’s office–DUH. In addition, there’s a lengthy flashback (20 minutes that felt like 45) added to the middle of the first act explaining how the twins made it from birth to now, which is vaguely interesting but does the exact opposite of moving the show forward. Most of the work so far seems to focus on providing stronger back stories and motivations for the characters, and all that work pays off. The next phase of revisions needs to focus on picking up the pace of the show and upping the entertainment value, particularly in the vaudeville numbers which often fail to reach escape velocity. (In a year when Cabaret is headed back to Broadway, we should be particularly thoughtful that numbers such as these can be both showstopping and meaningful; at the moment, few of Sideshow’s diegetic numbers are either.)
At the end of the day, the team behind Sideshow—and audiences being asked to shell out top ticket prices—need to decide if it’s all worth it. The great songs from the show have already entered the repertoire. In fact, New Yorkers can hear them in concert at 54 Below later this season. There’s already been a much more successful show to tackle the the central themes of outsiders, sisterhood, and belting, and Wicked isn’t going anywhere soon. And wouldn’t we rather have Henry Krieger and Bill Russell working on new material instead of rehashing a show that already took five years of their creative lives on its first trip to Broadway?
After all, if there’s one thing those of us who follow Broadway history know about these cult revisals, it’s that no matter how much “better” or more successful subsequent versions might be, those vocal, protective fans who got us all to take a second look will always prefer the fabulously flawed originals with which they first fell in love.