Last week I got the opportunity to see Side Show on Broadway. I received two comped tickets in exchange for a review. And luckily, the musical blew me away.
It’s an amazing (based on a) true story. Here’s the premise, which I was not aware of until my friend and I found our seats and opened our Playbills: Daisy and Violet Hilton were British twins born in 1908, fused at the pelvis. Sold by their mother, the twins were raised to sing, dance and play musical instruments, and eventually traveled to Texas and placed in sideshows during the 1930s. They were completely controlled by their handlers and even though they made a lot of money, they never saw a dime until they emancipated themselves. Their true story is a harrowing one, and Broadway managed to take that story and turn it into a glittering feast for the eyes and for the heart. So many times during this musical I found myself with wet eyes, completely moved by the characters and their pain and strength.
The musical opens with the sideshow. We see the typical players: Bearded Lady, Cannibal King, the boy who’s half dog, the Tattooed Lady, and Sir, the owner of the sideshow and of the girls. We also meet the beautiful and talented Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who have been exploited all their lives because of their conjoined bodies. They’re also naive, innocent dreamers who want to see those dreams come true. Through an introductory musical number we learn that Daisy is the one who wants to be a movie star, and that her sister Violet cherishes a more modest dream: simply to get married and have a family. Both dreams are close to impossible as they are. Right there, I could feel their pain, made the more poignant by the fact that I knew these characters were based on real people.
Daisy and Violet are “discovered” by a hot-shot talent scout and are liberated from their handler Sir and trained to be vaudeville stars. They quickly become famous but they can’t ever be normal girls like they want to be. I wish I could transport myself back into the show and experience these songs again, with songs like “I Will Never Leave You,” “Like Everyone Else” and “One Plus One Equals Three.”
I suppose I should buy myself the soundtrack! The characters are also extremely well developed: Daisy becomes a shameless flirt after her dreams of Hollywood are dashed and her sister Violet lashes out at her for acting “fast.” The talent scout, Terry, becomes obsessively infatuated with Daisy but is tortured by her condition; he can’t overcome the fact that she’s attached to her sister and wants her “all to myself.” His song—a tortured man’s obsessive song—is so powerful my jaw dropped. It also includes an amazing dream sequence wherein he dances with Daisy (separate from her sister) and you can feel the sexual tension and longing building up in each character.
Then there’s Jake, a former sideshow performer and the caretaker of the twins. He’s desperately in love with Violet and when she accepts a marriage proposal, sings a heartbroken song about how Violet “should be loved…like I love you.” He knows that the marriage is simply another exploitation and that Violet can’t see it. His song is also one that shook me to my core and let me feel everything the characters were feeling.
It’s also a visually arresting show, which is the norm for Broadway but which still blew me away. We sat front row (a little too close, but hey, I’m not complaining) so we could see every line, every scratch, every muscle of these actors and every detail of the set. It was all so beautifully set, blocked, and choreographed.
It was also SO much fun to see two Broadway actors pretend to be literally attached at the hip, dancing a pas de quatre with two men, pulling the other one along when they walk angrily away, and having to dance vaudeville dances, all the while probably mashing their bums together. The effect was so realistic that when, during the finale, they finally separate (supposedly in their heads) I was like, “WAIT.” I forgot the two women were in fact not born that way. I think that’s a success.
Simply put, this show pierced my heart and soul. After the show I looked up the Hilton sisters briefly and learned that their story is even sadder than the one portrayed onscreen. The musical does scrub away some of the worse parts of their lives and makes the sisters—supposedly very promiscuous in real life (although the mechanics of that fact make me cringe and also scratch my head)—much more innocent and childlike. I’m planning on reading a biography of the sisters and have chosen The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins. There’s also a well-researched documentary entitled Bound By Flesh. And if you want to see the Hilton sisters for real onscreen, they starred in two movies: Freaks and Chained For Life, an exploitation film.
The real Hilton sisters
What really made me sad is that due to low ticket sales (even though the reviews were great) Side Show is closing on January 4th. So, for my readers, I can offer two-for-one tickets until January 4th for any performance! For those of you in New York please go see this show before it closes. And for those of you elsewhere, come to New York and see this show. ;) You won’t regret it.
Redeem the offer online by clicking https://www.telechargeoffers.com. The online checkout code is “SS241RSH.”
musical photos from Broadway.com.