When Porchlight Music Theatre included the critically acclaimed Broadway musical Side Show as part of its 2015-16 season, it was initially announced that it would be the original 1997 version and not the thoroughly revised 2014 revival edition overseen by Academy Award-winner Bill Condon ( Gods and Monsters, Chicago ). But it was Side Show's book writer and lyricist, Bill Russell, who put the pressure on Porchlight to switch to the newer version.
"We worked quite a long time on this new version," Russell said, noting the regional productions of Side Show at La Jolla Playhouse in California and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., that led up to the musical's critically acclaimed return to Broadway. "I'm very proud of it and I really think we didn't do all that work to make it worse. I feel like it plays better and I really wanted to get it out there so this seemed like a good first step."
What hastened the switch for Porchlight was the premature closing of Side Show on Broadway in early 2015. Despite rave reviews, Side Show didn't draw in huge tourist crowds to keep it afloat. It's a fate that also befell the original Broadway production which also garnered much critical praise.
Russell cited what is known as an "ick factor" that might initially turn off general audiences when told that Side Show is based upon the tragic story of real-life show-biz conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton ( 1908-1969 ). Fused at the pelvis, the duo were essentially sold at birth into showbiz servitude, but their hard work and talent elevated them above the fairground freak shows to become the highest-paid touring act in vaudeville.
"It's a curious situation, because once you get the people there, they tend to love it. The Broadway revival got rave reviews and the response was positively ecstatic, but we couldn't sell enough tickets," Russell said. "Ironically, Side Show has done very well regionally."
Negotiating the version switch was a little dicey time-wise according to Porchlight artistic director Michael Webber, who also directs the post-Broadway premiere of the revised Side Show.
"It all came to a head about the same timeBill was working with the lawyers in New York in order to solidify the rights and the licensing, but we really had our backs against the wall because we needed to start casting and getting contracts put out there," Webber said. "We were basically preparing for two different productions just in case we didn't get the contracts for the revisal, which is very, very different. For instance we needed to cast someone who could play ( the famed illusionist ) Harry Houdini in the new version, but if we didn't get the rights, then he would play another character in the older version."
What prompted all the Side Show revisions in part was the passion of Condon, who was enamored of the original version. But also a wealth of more information about the Hilton twins became known thanks to Dean Jensen's 2006 biography The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins and Leslie Zemeckis' 2012 film documentary Bound by Flesh. Condon pushed Russell and composer Henry Krieger ( Dreamgirls ) to strengthen the story and they ended up overhauling the whole show.
"The first version is more of a backstage story, the revival version being more of a bio-pic and more about their life story," said Russell, noting that he and Krieger didn't have as much available historical material to draw from when they initially wrote Side Show.
But as a nod to the fanatical fans who cherish Side Show in its initial form, Russell said that theater companies will have the option to license and produce either the original 1997 or the revised 2014 version through Samuel French, Inc.
"It's always been so moving to me about how much this show means to people," said Russell, adding that growing up gay and effeminate in a hyper-masculine cattle-ranching place like Black Hills, South Dakota, made him feel like "the biggest freak in the world in that environment."
"Relating to a side show attraction of conjoined twins felt absolutely that it hit home and it was not a leap for me," Russell said. "I don't see Side Show as a gay metaphor, although if people read it that way, I'm happy, too. But it's bigger than that. It's a metaphor for difference in whatever way."
Porchlight Music Theatre's Chicago premiere of the revised Side Show plays from Friday, Sept. 11, through Sunday, Oct. 18, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Previews run through Sept. 14, with an official press opening 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15.
Previews are $35 and opening night ( with reception ) is $50; regular-run tickets are $39-$45. Call 773-327-5252 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.org .