The modern day euphemistic definition for the freak shows of the nineteenth and twentieth century freak shows on the circus circuit is “a show of biological rarities.” It’s a nice way to sanitize the stigma, no? Along with the typical sword-swallowing and fire-eating performances, the side shows at the circus featured heavily tattooed and pierced people, and others with physical differences that shock the so-called normal orientation of things. Another big draw of the side shows were the “science gone wrong” exhibits of deformed babies and other oddities.
Fortunately, towards the middle of the twentieth century, the understandings of the scientifically explainable mutations and diseases of genetics sent “freak shows” spiraling down in popularity as people began to sympathize more with the condition rather than be terrified or inappropriately entertained by the exploitation of the people on the fringes of carnivals and circuses.
But, before that revolution in understanding, the freak shows–the side shows–were a draw. Daisy and Violet Hilton, the subjects of the musical Side Show opening up this week at Harbor City International Theater, were side show “freaks” catapulted into celebrity. The Hilton sisters were the first conjoined twins born in the United Kingdom to survive more than a few weeks after birth. Their mother was a barmaid whose boss, Mary Hilton, for all intents and purposes, bought the twins from their mother after deciding their deformity had commercially successful possibilities. The girls were kept in line with physical abuse and taught to sing and dance in preparation for the “career” that lay in wait for them.
Sheryl Jensen (Sweeney Todd, RENT, Cabaret) is directing the musical for Lundeen Productions. This is Tracy Lundeen’s second venture in producing theater, and why not? Jensen has a proven record with the musical genre and last year’s production of Cabaret was a resounding success at the box office, proving that an independently produced show at a venue (Fitger’s Spirit of the North Theater) other than the usual locations, can be vitally successful with solid directing and talented, driven for success actors.
“He took a shot with me last year when I approached him about backing Cabaret. He went into it knowing that theater is a risky venture at best,” said Jensen of Lundeen, “His complete willingness to give me complete artistic license to do the show I want to do is also a great gift I do not take for granted.”
To be sure, Side Show is not as widely a known show as one like Cabaret, but the story is compelling, nonetheless. Jensen admits to being the kind of director that has delved deeply into the research on the real life story of this show. ”I love digging into a time period, a culture, a new world. Exploring that world on my own, ” shares Jensen about her artistic process, “before sharing it with a cast is a significant part of the process for me.”
Local actresses Bree Taylor and Gracie Anderson are strong vocalists and no strangers to the musical stage–Taylor, having worked with Jensen previously in last year’s Cabaret and in Man of La Mancha, and Anderson, formerly in Renegade Theater Company’s productions of The Who’s Tommy and The Wild Party. Both actors spent considerable time researching their roles as the famed Hilton sisters.
When asked how she felt about the “tragic” life of Daisy and Violet Hilton, Anderson offered her own particular insight. ”What I have taken away from the story of the Hilton Sisters is not one of tragedy, but of perseverance. They were exploited horribly as children, until they escaped they escaped the guardianship of their exploiters and made a splash on vaudeville- something they wanted to do. They tried many times to have relationships and marriages, and they failed. But at the end of they day, the always had each other- a best friend, a sister, a confidant, a business partner. I think their life wasn’t tragic, but their death certainly was. Daisy died three days before Violet did, and Violet had no desire to be separated from Daisy, even if it meant that she would live. The sisters were so close they couldn’t live without each other. If that isn’t love and happiness with another person, I don’t know what is.”
Taylor, for her part, largely agreed that the Hilton sisters’ lives wasn’t all a tale of tragedy yet acknowledged the legacy of the circus side shows as something tragic on its own.
“These people were used and mistreated solely for the entertainment of others. It makes me sick to think of how something that can be so unimportant now could ruin a life not even a century ago.”
Casting both Taylor and Anderson in the principal roles as conjoined sisters, despite their different heights, was a solid choice as far as Sheryl Jensen was concerned. ”Bree Taylor and Gracie Anderson have this thrilling vocal blend that was exactly the sound I was looking for in the show. They do not look at all like the real Hilton sisters, nor like the two Tony-nominated women who played them on Broadway.”
The roles were originated by actors Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner when the show opened on Broadway in 1997. It ran for just 91 performances before it closed but received generally positive reviews. Ripley had won a Tony previously for her role in the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Next to Normal. Both actresses were nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for Side Show and would have shared the award had they won.
Both Anderson and Taylor were eager to work with Jensen and set about preparing for their roles with all the challenges and more inherent in a musical production. Jensen acknowledged that both actors are not the same height so adjustments had to be made for their physical differences. Taylor talked about the challenges of the role in terms other than just memorizing the script and learning the music.
“There was a lot of logistical preparation for this role. Gracie and I needed to learn how to move together without actually being connected and without verbal cues,” she said, adding that, “It took quite a bit of practice. We also studied the real lives of Daisy and Violet to better understand their relationship with each other and how each would behave in different situations.” Taylor’s co-star, Gracie Anderson said that the thoughts about how any actors chosen for the show would work together began at the audition process. ”When it comes to playing the Hilton sisters, it’s not just about you. Someone else has to audition that looks like you, blends well with you musically, moves with you, and then on top of all that, you’d hope that you have chemistry with them.”
Anderson had wanted to play one of the twins in Side Show long before the show was even considered for production in Duluth. She was approached by Jensen to audition for the show. Despite her anxieties about the audition process and how she would have to match up well with anyone else auditioning for the same role, Anderson understood the challenges and rewards of being cast. ”I knew once I was cast that it was going to be an experience like nothing I had ever done in the theatre before. It was going to take a lot of work to move convincingly as Siamese twins, and then distinguish our characters individually” She went on to talk about not just the acting and physical challenges of the role, but also about the music. “The music is a marathon for the twins to sing. The Twins sing seven major powerhouse duets together, not to mention other songs they sing with their love interests and the company. Gaining the stamina to sing those songs every night without croaking by the end was a big doubt I had.”
And the music is prolific in the show. Jensen expressed her enthusiasm about the show’s musical numbers, adding that the duets between the sisters are “incredible.” There are twenty-four numbers in the show, about half of them duets with Daisy and Violet. The New York TImes review of the show, from 1997, states that the music runs from the ethereal to saucy gospel and rock flavored ballads. Taylor rejoices in being unfettered in the musical style of the show and is thankful for the opportunity for strong female duets within the story. ”It is bliss to be able to belt out these passionate songs with Gracie. I find myself moved deeply while performing them. The songs tell most of the story. Dialogue seems secondary to the musical performances when it comes to the story line.”
Ultimately, the actors playing the real-life roles of Daisy and Violet Hilton feel a responsibility to the show’s integrity and portrayal of real lives. And so does Sheryl Jensen, as the show’s director. ”My responsibility to tell this story comes from my strong belief that all of us feel like freaks at one time or another in our lives,” shares Jensen. ”The sense of the fear of ’the other’ stems, I think, from our own fears about our own freakishness. If people could move past their distrust of anyone or anything different from themselves, our world would be a radically different place. Sadly, Daisy and Violet find in the show and in their real lives that it is the rare person who can see beyond their affliction.”
Bree Taylor acknowledges a sense of the twins’ dignity and hope from the show. ”This show helped me to hone in on what is most important to me. The twins find this by the end of the show and know that despite difficulties they will continue to face, they are strong enough to get through them with their heads held high. Yes, all our lives have tragedies, but we need to find what gives us strength and hold to that.”
Taylor’s co-star and on stage twin Gracie Anderson couldn’t agree more and added a poignant silver lining. ”I don’t focus on the bad times the girls faced, I focus on their triumph over the bad times. I don’t see them as lonely old maids–they had each other–constant friendship and support through the end of their days. They loved each other so much, that they never wanted to be separated, even if it was a possibility. I don’t view that as tragedy. I think that is one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever heard.”
Side Show, directed by Sheryl Jensen for Lundeen Productions will be on stage at the Harbor City International Theater July 12 through July 29. Thursday through Saturday curtain time is 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Harbor City International Theater is located at 332 West Michigan Street in Duluth.
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