When it's mentioned to book writer/lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger that their Side Show is the most anticipated new musical since Titanic, Russell's dropped jaw spoke volumes. It was hard to know if he was thinking about the pre-Tony nomination buzz or the post-Tony Awards buzz for that show.

But the theater gossip isn't so much directed to Side Show, the musical about Daisy and Violent Hilton, Siamese twins from England (they died in 1969 at age 60) who made a splash in American vaudeville, but at the daring themes that abound in recent and upcoming musicals. ''In 1985," recalled Russell, "my friend (director/choreographer) Robert Longbottom told me, 'I saw this terrible movie on TV, "Chained for Life," starring real-life Siamese twins. We have to do a show.' I didn't say, `Impossible.' I like slightly off-center ideas. I thought, `Siamese twins. How theatrical.'"

In 1992, with their Off Broadway musical Pageant running, they began the new project. Longbottom asked, "Who should do the music?" Russell replied, "I always wanted to write with Henry Kreiger."
"They contacted me through the Dramatist's Guild," recalled Krieger, "and I responded. I'd had a tape of a song, 'Learning To Let Go,' from Bill's revue, Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens and was playing it over and over." [The London cast recording is on First Night Records.]
The duo briefly met in 1983 when Russell was working in Los Angeles and Krieger was on his way to the Emmys, where he picked up an award for Dreamgirls. "I read Daisy and Violet's story," said Russell. "In alternating paragraphs, they wrote: `I Violet do this'...`I Daisy do this.' Their publicity machine, especially when they made the transition from carnivals to vaudeville, was so intense, you can't be sure they wrote it. But I was moved nonetheless."

Partly because growing up in Wyoming and South Dakota, he always felt like an outcast. "My father was a cowboy," said Russell. "I was gay. I loved the theater. There was none. I responded to Daisy and Violet because they were lovely, talented women with distinct differences. Only the fact that they were attached by this piece of flesh made them freaks."
What appealed to Krieger was that "it appeared, because of their life condition, they were dealt a curve. But not so. With good cheer and alacrity, they made life work. They had a positive approach and a great sense of humor. I don't know if they felt what they had was such a bad thing."

When Krieger and Russell had a concept and a few songs, they began shopping for producers. With Krieger's mega-success with Dreamgirls (with lyrics by the late Tom Eyen), doors opened. "Producers listened," he said, "but the subject matter didn't have much appeal. I called Bernard Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater, who's a friend, and he said, 'I don't want to hear it.' If I'd been John Guare or Wendy Wasserstein, it would've been different. That didn't reassure me that my track record meant much."

After Dreamgirls and The Tap Dance Kid, Krieger said he'd "been in limbo for a while. It was hard. When I'd fill out papers and it came to Occupation, I'd write 'theatrical composer' but said to myself, 'Are you still?' But I never stopped composing. I did regional work and special material. It never got to the point where I wondered about my next meal, but I wondered if I'd have another Broadway show."

Manhattan Theater Club mounted a reading, and it became apparent that Krieger and Russell were on to something. "Something different," observed Krieger. "Something unique," echoed Russell. "I got brave and went to Robin Wagner (the award-winning set designer)," said Krieger. "He became a supporter. Through my new agent, we got to Emanuel Azenberg and then Joseph Nederlander." The producers mounted a showcase, and the gypsy gossip was that Broadway's next big (actually at $5 million, it's small) musical would have Siamese twins singing, "Wherever we go, whatever we do, we're gonna go through it together!"

Though Side Show is set in the 1930s and will have period music in production numbers, "We didn't want to get trapped in the 30s," Krieger said. "The majority of the sung-through score is contemporary. After all, emotions are contemporary, no matter what period they're set in." Krieger and Russell always believed that the material -- "Daisy and Violet's story" -- would appeal to theatregoers. "On some level," says Krieger, "everyone feels like a freak in some way. I think people will respond to Side Show because it's a metaphor for all the ways people are different."

Russell, who is making his Broadway debut, thought the process would be intimidating. "But what it's been is a lot exciting," he said. "We've honed the material over such a long period, that it hasn't felt unduly stressful. I love seeing it come to life with the actors. [Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner star.] It's been a fabulous experience and collaboration."

"We really love each other," added Krieger. "The three of us (with Longbottom, who is directing and choreographing) are the best of friends. It's a family business. Everyone who's joined -- from the music director and set designer to the actors and producers -- have become part of the family. We're all very close. It's a business, but it's a family enterprise. And everyone feels part of it. People actually want to come to work. That makes the going smoother. And that's also a very good sign."

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Key Subjects: 
Side Show, Henry Krieger, Bill Russell
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
May 1998