note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Geek … Scott Albert
Snake Lady … Trish Aponte
Dolly Dimples … Dana Bell
Buddy Foster … Peter A. Carey
Terry Conne … Christopher Chew
Roustabout … David Costa
Roustabout … Evan Crothers
The Boss … Steven Dascoulias
Fortune Teller … Caroline deLima
Reptile Man … Ben Gettinger
Roustabout … Kevin M. Kline
Violet Hilton … Susan Molloy
Fakir … Gary Thomas Ng
Bearded Lady … Ellen Peterson
Jake … Brian R. Robinson
Harem Girl … Kristen Sargeant
Daisy Hilton … Maryann Zschau
Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical SIDE SHOW, which will soon complete its run at the Lyric Stage, is based on the famous lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, two sisters joined at the hip; by coincidence, SIDE SHOW itself is joined to two other musicals in the Boston area --- SWEENEY TODD (New Repertory Theatre) and the twice-revived BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL (SpeakEasy Stage Company) --- they demonstrate in triplicate what has gone wrong with the American musical over the past few decades (I speak of original works, not revivals): tunes, comedy, romance, charm have been beaten out of doors; the tuneless, the charmless, the pretentious, the offbeat now rule in their places --- and in over-amplification, too. It is all too easy to point a finger at a “Mr. S. S.” as the cause of it all; part of the blame can be leveled at his various producers. Many producers tend to give not what they think the public wants but, rather, MORE of what they think the public wants --- if something works, MILK IT! --- that is, until the cash cow runs dry or the public grows bored and producers must come up with a new darling or trend (sometimes, by accident, even Art is born). Mr. S. S., for all his talent, would not have gotten as far as he has had the times (the Realism-addicted 1970s) not been ready for him and given him the support to paint himself into a rather bleak corner. Mr. S. S. has been silent for awhile --- his progeny/imitators continue to deconstruct the American musical where he has left off. SIDE SHOW is only one of many results.
“Hold!” some may cry, “are you saying that musicals cannot be serious? Must they all be sweetness and light?” No, not at all; as I recently scribbled, there should be room for everyone in the theatre, and once upon a time, on Broadway, there was: WEST SIDE STORY ran alongside THE MUSIC MAN; GYPSY competed with FLOWER DRUM SONG; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF met its match with HELLO, DOLLY! and FUNNY GIRL; MAN OF LA MANCHA opened during the season of MAME and SWEET CHARITY; CABARET (often called the first “concept musical”) squared off with off-Broadway’s YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN; HAIR let the sunshine in while off-Broadway’s YOUR OWN THING cheerily advised you to do, well, your own thing (even SWEENEY TODD itself couldn’t hold a candle to the popularity of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’). These sweetness-and-light shows weren’t too shabby and all had lengthy runs, while the serious ones entertained as well as enlightened --- and they spawned a good dozen or so hit tunes, too, which in turn extended their shows’ lives. Unfortunately, the up-and-coming lyricists/composers were more devoted to Serious than Sweetness-and-Light (quick! Name a hit tune from KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN); only now, with shows such as THE PRODUCERS and HAIRSPRAY (both of them, film adaptations), is the sunshine gradually being let back into the theatre. Gradually.
I retract my finger from Mr. S. S. and his producers (somewhat) and now point it at HAIR, which preceded COMPANY by a good two years. That tribal love-rock musical which, according to one critic, “makes MARAT SADE look like PETER PAN”, helped to raise (or lower) the standard of the New Musical. Yes, it featured free love, drugs and nudity; yes, it was Where It’s At, etc., but the biggest wedge was that its score was by and for the Now Generation --- in other words, the new crop of “real” musicals would soon divide their audiences according to age, taste or whim. HAIR proved that (sanitized) rock music could draw in younger audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Moon/June musical; enough rock musical failures proved that HAIR was definitely one of a kind --- but that didn’t stop HAIR wannabes from reaching out to the kids over the years; HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH succeeded, and it did so by brilliantly posing as a glam-rock concert, while TOMMY came from The Who’s already successful concept album. The American musical shall always mean “Broadway”; what is farmed out to the provinces is grown fresh in New York, on or off the Great White Way. (Not only do we get the hits, we’re also given the flops so that producers can proclaim “Local World Premiere!” for their theatres --- i.e., “Come see why this show failed on Broadway!”) In time, Tin Pan Alley gave way to pop songwriters and MTV aesthetics --- all aimed at younger audiences; coupled with Mr. S. S.’s somber legacy, what results is the same musical sound we’ve been hearing ever since the master went silent, regardless of period or subject matter --- or at least that’s what I’ve been hearing. And I hate it.
And don’t get me started on the rise of Sir Andrew and the Attack of the Killer Imports….
There isn’t much to discuss about SIDE SHOW; each act ended in a summation: Act One “freaks” need love, too; Act Two Daisy promises to never leave her joined twin, Violet (though I would have liked to have seen her try). Act Two fared better: it had a frothy Follies number, and a FOLLIES vaudeville turn for Violet’s two-faced suitor --- i.e., TUNES. It also had a few moments of dialogue (most of SIDE SHOW is sung throughout) --- it is amazing when that Stonehenge of sound stopped and characterizations briefly bloomed with conversation, not belts --- but only briefly. Aside from those summations, I neither learned (nor cared) about these sisters and their plight; they remained a curiosity to the end. “Come look at the freaks”, as the stage audience sang at the start and the finish of this SIDE SHOW.
One GOOD thing that SIDE SHOW shared with SWEENEY TODD and BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL is that it also had an excellent cast; Spiro Veloudos and David Connolly provided the spin-on-a-dime staging --- it, too, had a killer score so that audiences applauded the performers more for their stamina than for their artistry. Maryann Zschau (Daisy) and Susan Molloy (Violet) made a nicely contrasted pair of twins, with Ms. Zschau’s warm brass blending well with Ms. Molloy’s poignant strings, and Brian R. Robinson as Jake, Violet’s loving but unacceptably dark-skinned friend, stopped the show cold with his powerful reprise of their duet “You Should Be Loved”. I have seen Christopher Chew and Peter A. Carey triumph elsewhere and trust they’ll not mind when I say they were marking time as the twins’ suitors; among the newcomers, barrel-chested Steven Dascoulias was in fine, rousing voice in the brief role of The Boss, Scott Albert contributed a nice period touch as director Todd Browning, and Gary Thomas Ng has a sweet, goofy face that reminds me of the late Bert Lahr’s sweet, goofy face.
So what musicals HAVE I enjoyed this year? In addition to Gene Dante’s return as HEDWIG, I enjoyed the Vokes Theatre’s charming TINTYPES and Boston Theatre Works’ topsy-turvy MOLLY’S DREAM; though it was only ten minutes in length, Sara Adelman and Dan Ring’s POP! THE MUSICAL was a hit with the Boston Theatre Marathon audiences; it may have consisted of spoofing today’s musical trends but it did give me what SIDE SHOW, SWEENEY TODD and BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL did not --- pleasure. Remember when musicals were fun? Ms. Adelman and Mr. Ring do --- and they’re in their early twenties.
Speaking of MARAT SADE, I suspect it, too, will become a musical someday. I can see it now: the mountain of guillotined heads would do a rap rendition of “I Ain’t Got No-body”, and before Charlotte Corday stabs Marat in his bath they would belt a power duet while her knife is poised over his heart:
MARAT: But whhhhhhhhhhhhhhy?
CHARLOTTE: Just diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!
MARAT: But whhhhhhhhhhhhhhy?
CHARLOTTE: Just diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!
As comedienne Anna Russell once quipped, “you can do anything so long as you SING it!” The American musical of the past few decades is the sad, dreary proof. The number of successful revivals is the current Broadway trend but at least audiences get a taste of what a musical WAS; it also indicates that producers recognize a tried-and-true winner when they see (and hear) one.