A Powerful Look at America’s Freaks

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Side Show

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

When you sit down in the St. James Theater in New York to see the new musical Side Show, that opened last week, you stare at a huge screen that has a portrait of a 1930s carnival on it. It is a gauzy look, a haunting look, as haunting as the show itself.

Side Show is the sensational story of the Hilton twins, Violent and Daisy, who gained fame in the Great Depression when they became stars of a circus side show, the movie Freaks and a touring show of their own. They were new, they were exciting, they were talented.

And they were Siamese twins.

The beautiful twins, joined at the hip, are the stars of Side Show, a provocative, gripping, dazzling and, in the end, heart breaking story of a conjoined pair of women. Today on television we see emotion tugging stories of conjoined children who undergo miracle operations and live on as separate people. Not the Hilton sisters and not in the 1930s. They were told that if they were operated on one or both would die. They were condemned.

Side Show is a “reimagined” revival of a 1997 musical that, surprisingly, did not do that well. It opens with a startling number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” sung by a dozen or so freaks at the Side Show. They are giants, “human pin cushions”, half man/half women, lizard man, midgets, women with beards, tattooed ladies and three legged men, each more grotesque than the other. Then the stars of the Side Show, the gorgeous Hilton sisters, emerge. They are “owned” by the manager of the Side Show, who will not let them go

An agent for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, Terry, sees the twins and goes to court with them to win their freedom. He and his dance/singer coach Buddy then whisk them away to a show of their own that gives them national recognition.

As the play unfolds and the plot thickens, the miserable life of the Siamese twins slowly sinks in. They have no privacy and no love life. They look at each other and talk to each other all day. They bath together, eat together, dress together, and sleep together. It is a relentless life and a stark one.

The first act ends dramatically with the love-starved girls singing a mournful and moving rendition of the sad “Who Will Love Me as I Am.”

In act two, the girls tour big cities, host lavish parties and become famous, managed well by Terry and Buddy. The men tell them they love them but joke that if there is a marriage “the one of us becomes the three of us.”

The women are separated twice to sing and dance in dream sequences and there is a sense of magic and yet sadness in watching them because it is only a dream.

Side Show is a hypnotic trip into the underbelly of American history, where the freaks live and crowds pay good money to stare, point fingers and laugh at them. They formed their own communities and looked out for each other, but were still “the freaks.” The Siamese Hilton twins were the most sensational freaks of all. Watching their story makes you wince.

The story of the real Daisy and Violet Hilton was sadder than that told in the play. Siamese twins were and are rare (one pair in about every 200,000 births). They are usually joined at the hip and share organs, but some have been joined at the head or the back.

The Hiltons were born in 1908 in Brighton, England, and became the first British Siamese twins to live longer than a few weeks. Their mother, Katie Skinner, was an unmarried barmaid. She sold the girls to her boss, Mary Hilton, who wanted to make them show business attractions in order to make money. She and her husband raised them in near isolation, did not send them to school and subjected them to physical and verbal abuse.

The girls were put into side shows in England and the U.S. (they once performed with Bob Hope). Hilton died and willed them to her daughter Edith who had married an entrepreneur named Myer Meyers. They pushed even harder than Mary Hilton to make money off them. The Meyers studied the career of and Chang and Eng Bunker, Siamese twins from Thailand in the nineteenth century who made well publicized careers in public appearances. Violet and Daisy made a small fortune in show business, but none of the money went to them. The girls then took their keepers to court and won their freedom, plus a $100,000 settlement. They put together their own vaudeville show, “The Hilton Sisters Review,” and toured America for years. They had affairs and several short lived marriages.

The Hiltons never had fallback jobs and managed their money badly. In 1960 they were abandoned by their manager and became grocery store clerks. They died in 1969 of the Hong Kong flu. Daisy died first and Violet four days later. They were 60.

Bill Russell and Bill Condon (he is also the director) wrote a tight book for Side Show that is full of emotion. Condon also directs the play and does a magnificent job of bringing out the humanity of the twins. The music, by Henry Kreiger, is wonderful, especially the “Freaks” song, the first act closer and some songs in the second act.

Condon, a show biz veteran, gets spectacular performances by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as Violent and Daisy Hilton. They walk and dance in perfect unison and, throughout the show, the pair seem like they are joined at the hip themselves. The women give a two of the best performances on Broadway in years. Other fine performances in this stellar musical are from Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik as Terry and Buddy and David St. Louis as the girls’ aide Jake (what a voice!).

The history of the side show is presented emotionally in the play. The side show was a gallery of freaks attached to a circus with a separate admission. They thrived for generations, but by the 1930s public disgust with the exploitation of them caused many states to pass laws prohibiting them and by the 1950s they had pretty much gone out of business.

Side Show is a magnificent look back in time at another America.

PRODUCTION; The play is produced by Darrin Bagert, Martin Massman, Jane Baron Sherman, Joan Rafft and Jhett Tolentino, Jujamcyn theaters, and others, in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the La Jolla Playhouse. Sets: David Rockwell, Costumes: Paul Tazewell, Lighting: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Sound: Peter Hylenski. Anthony Van Laast is the choreographer and Bill Condon the director. The play has an open run.

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