Bill Condon on freak shows, directing for theater with his new production of 'Side Show'

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Image Credit: Kevin Berne

The musical Side Show gained a significant cult following when it premiered on Broadway in 1997, and it seems the rest of pop culture is only just now catching up, with an AMC reality show about the Venice Boardwalk freak show, the popular Tim Burton film and musical adaptation of Big Fish, and various other carny-themed stories making their mark. So it’s a fitting time for a revival of the musical about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who started as a circus act to rise to fame on stage in the 1930s. In a new production officially opening this weekend at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., director Bill Condon calls his revival of Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s show more of a reimagining, moving away from the backstage feel of the original.

Condon is no stranger to musical theater — he’s produced the Oscars and of course directed the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. But Side Show is his first time directing a staged musical. We spoke with Condon about the revival, the challenges of directing in the theater compared to film, and why the story of Daisy and Violet resonates at this moment in history.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is the first time you’ve directed a stage musical.
BILL CONDON: 
The closest was the part of Dreamgirls that we staged in the theater. I would say we could have put on a 40-minute show of Dreamgirls from the numbers we had, but no, to do an entire show, this is the first time for me.

Why Side Show? It’s not that old a show (it debuted on Broadway in 1997), so it’s pretty soon to stage a revival.
I had a powerful reaction to it when I first saw it. It has a tremendously strong cult following, but it hasn’t had the life it should. So this is a chance to introduce it to a lot of new people and also to really look at it from a different angle

Also the fact that both [writer and lyricist] Bill Russell and Henry [music] were so open to the idea of rethinking it so that it wasn’t strictly a revival as much as a new production, almost a new play. There aren’t that many precedents I can think of, of rethinking something so drastically. I hope and believe that we’ve stayed true to the essence of what people have always loved about it.

Why make such drastic changes to a show that was pretty successful on Broadway in its original form?
This is all in the context of having really been blown away by Bobby Longbottom’s original production. It was quite abstract, it had a very kind of striking essentially theatrical conceit, and ours I would call it a kind of flesh-and-blood-and-bone version of the story where you really are thrown into an actual sideshow carnival environment. I think you will get that unnerving — and hopefully fun — feeling you have when you go to Coney Island or if you were to go to see a carnival. I’m a huge fan of the movie Freaks and that’s how we most remember the Hilton sisters, but their story is unbelievably interesting. It is maybe less of a traditional backstage musical and maybe more of a biographical musical now.

Why do you think people are so interested in carnivals and freak shows at this particular moment in history?
That’s interesting! Maybe there are so many taboos that have been broken down, that there’s a sense of people embracing what makes them different and doing it with more pride, wanting to celebrate things that are out of the ordinary. I think that informs what we’re doing in this production.

Alice Ripley originated the role of Violet Hilton on Broadway. How did you approach casting such a difficult part?
I’ll tell you, casting Side Show is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Imagine, they have to credibly seem like twins — if not identical, very close to being identical — so immediately there are people who are good for one part or the other who simply don’t have a match. So that’s a whole group of people you have to say goodbye to. Then they have to have these extraordinary voices, they have to be wonderful actresses, because this play is a workout — everything rests on their shoulders. In our production, they have to dance really well because that’s something we’re doing a bit more with, them as a dancing attraction. And then on top of that they’re completely different characters. Daisy has to be a comedienne. It’s not like there’s another set of twins if something goes wrong or if one of our actresses gets a cold, I don’t know what we do.

There’s no understudy plan in place?
Not much of one, no. Because it’s really needle-in-a-haystack time, you know?

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced directing for the stage compared to directing films?
Time is such a crucial part of creating something theatrical, but really the conversations you’re having are very similar to the ones you’d have on a movie, whether it’s with actors, designers, or the choreographer, composer, and lyricist, it’s all about how to tell a story well and what’s going on with the characters. What’s amazing is how much more time you get to go into it more deeply and how much you can change based on what you’re seeing. I don’t know why I waited so long. I’d love to do it many, many more times.

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