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The Broadway musical Side Show burst onto the New York stage in 1997 in an iconic production starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. Featuring a score by the writer of Dreamgirls, Henry Krieger with lyrics by Bill Russell, the musical tells the real life story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who shot to fame in America during the 1930s and follows their quest for love, acceptance and compassion.
Whilst the original production may have only ran for 91 performances, the musical became a cult hit, and was recently revived on Broadway at the St James Theatre which also ran for just over two months. The show has survived thanks to its incredible score which mixes traditional musical theatre, vaudeville numbers and pop-rock music to tell this incredible tale, with two of its biggest numbers, duets “Who Will Love Me as I am?” and “I Will Never Leave You” cementing themselves in the musical theatre songbook.
The first London production of Side Show is preparing to open at the Southwark Playhouse, coinciding neatly with the London premiere of Krieger's earlier hit musical Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. With a reputation for delivering small-scale revivals of lost musicals and UK premieres of Broadway and off-Broadway hits, the Southwark Playhouse will provide an intimate surrounding for this uniquely powerful story.
Two of the UK's most celebrated musical theatre leading ladies, Louise Dearman and Laura Pitt-Pulford will create the roles of Daisy and Violet Hilton in the London première, a task that they have both fully embraced, including the intimate rehearsal and performance conditions that see them attached at the hip whilst delivering an incredibly challenging vocal score.
“For me it was the music” Louise explains, as I ask what initially drew both leading ladies to the show. “I didn't know much about the show, it was only later on that I started to look into the story. I had the soundtrack when I was training at Laine Theatre Arts and I was completely obsessed with the original leading ladies Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner. When I found out they were doing it I thought – I have to be in it. Don't you dare cast anyone else!”
“I was very much aware of the show” explains Laura, “the whole concept of playing a conjoined twin appealed to me because - what a challenge!”
Aside from the obvious challenges when preparing to open a musical, something both Louise and Laura are more than familiar with, the physical and mental demands of portraying characters who are stuck side by side, or as I'm corrected, almost back to back, are daunting.
“We've tried to be incredibly accurate to the Hilton sisters as far as where they were joined” Laura explains. “I was initially thinking they were joined by the hip, but it was actually quite far back, more towards the buttocks really. They weren't necessarily side by side, they were more on a point with each other. We've really tried to study them so we can really imagine what it would have been like – to be side by side would have been easy...”
“Even for our choreographer, to be side by side would have been easier for certain moves” Louise continues, “we learnt pretty quickly that some things were impossible to do.”
The secret of how the two actresses stay affixed to one another throughout both rehearsal and performance is one I'm unwilling to share in order to preserve the illusion for the audience, but I will admit I was quite taken aback by the method of conjoining the duo.
“It's weird” confesses Louise. “Initially it was quite odd and it was clumsy to move in. Watching footage of the girls in the movies and seeing them move, they were very graceful up top. We did a run of Act One yesterday and it felt completely natural. It's when we're standing around in rehearsal that's the hardest. It makes you think what huge compromises they would have had to make. I just like that it's true, it's not trying to make it look aesthetically pleasing to everybody. If there are moments where our backs are towards some parts of the audience and such – that's okay.”
After overcoming the physical bond that brings the two performers together, I wondered how playing two very different characters who operate as one worked in a more basic acting sense.
“Violet and Daisy are very different in what they want”, Laura explains, “particularly in this version of it, so what we have to make sure we do is be aware that when you live with someone your whole life you're automatically going to have picked things up because you've lived so closely together. It's about finding who they are individually and what they've learnt from each other as twins. It's a fine balance and we're still playing with that.”
“It's interesting but it's very odd for us, how do we even research that feeling?” Louise asks. “We've gone as far as we can, we've spoken about moments where we as humans and individuals can walk out of a room to get away from something or someone – they obviously can't do that and it's difficult to understand because that's something we take for granted.”
“They had so much compromise from such an early age” continues Laura, “and that's exactly the process we have had to have as actors, the choices we have to make are together, we'll talk and see how we feel about it and go from there. It's knowing someone as well as you know yourself. Eventually you do just become one, that's the only way I can imagine it really.”
Louise echoed Laura's remarks on compromise, explaining that that was also the key message of the show as a whole. “It would be a completely different experience as an actresses if you were working with someone who wasn't prepared to compromise – essentially this whole show is about that, yes it's about love but it's about an enormous sacrifice. I have an enormous amount of respect for these women. They just had an understanding.”
Side Show is particularly remarkable due to the fact that it is based on a true story rather than fiction, and the lives of the Hilton sisters has been well-documented, extended upon and developed in a variety of different mediums, particularly on screen. I wondered if this extra material helped both actresses in developing their roles, or if they found it easier to just stick directly to the text.
“We watched lots of footage about freak shows and side shows and Siamese twins in particular and how they're connected” Louise explains. “Seeing how they moved, seeing them together and analysing the way they move, that really helped. We spent the first half of the first week of rehearsals having deep conversations about this world and how we perceive other people and about disability. The Southwark Playhouse is perfect for this show as it's small and intimate, we'll probably make people feel uncomfortable at moments and that's a good thing. It convinced me to look at people differently, not that I was negative, but it makes you think, we are all the same, there is only one race on this planet and that's the human race.”
“Difference shouldn't matter” states Laura. “Being different isn't a bad thing, it can be a wonderful thing. That's what the creative team are really getting across – they're called 'the freaks', and they're extraordinary. Everyone in the ensemble is developing alongside us and every character goes on their own little journey in the show...”
“It's all about getting our heads around who they are,” continues Louise, “it's a difficult show, we're all dealing with things that we fortunately have never had to deal with, so to get your head around that is very hard. All we can do is along the way is to make sure we're being true to these girls and understand at each point we know how they're feeling. This is a part of their life where they begin to feel love for other people, and it's when they first feel a pull away from each other and stop and think actually this is a burden on me, and that's why the musical is great. It's that incredibly exciting time of their life where it's a real struggle.”
The honesty in the storytelling certainly seems like a key idea in this new production, and it's something both Laura and Louise are keen to get across. Whilst many musical theatre fans are familiar with the score, in particular the two big 'belting' duets, seeing them in context will no doubt offer a fresh perspective for those who think they know the show.
“The song 'Who Will Love Me As I Am', we don't deliver that moment in the way that you would think” explains Louise. “It's very much their individual personal battles and act one doesn't end the way you think it would. It's not just a big belty ballad for divas – it's just not that. The truth of it it's very emotional, we've been a right old state in rehearsals, constantly topping up the make up.”
Side Show isn't just a musical for fans of the genre, both Laura and Louise hope that it attracts and connects a wider audience who will find themselves equally moved by the storytelling and the honesty of its message.
“'Who Will Love Me as I Am' is a song that all of us have in us, we all have our things” states Laura. “It's not as big as what Daisy and Violet are going through but we all have these things that seem small to other people but to us they're humongous. When we're singing that and it makes people question everything – we all have a little bit of hate for ourselves, and that will connect”.
“I think people when they are watching will think these people are a million miles away from what they are but by the end they remember that we're all very similar”, echoes Louise.“I think this show is going to be a real experience for people, I think they will come in maybe not knowing the show but with an idea, and I think they will leave thinking completely differently. You go out asking questions and if it makes audience think in a different way, then it has succeeded.”
Side Show runs at the Southwark Playhouse from 21 October to 3 December 2016