SAN DIEGO — Strands of Christmas lights bathed the La Jolla Playhouse stage in a warm golden glow as singing, dancing sister act Violet and Daisy Hilton prepared to leave behind the companionship of friends. The Lizard Man and the Tattooed Lady, the Dog-Faced Boy and the Geek surrounded the conjoined twins in a show of support for the young women who were attempting to break out of the traveling circus to take a shot at real 1930s fame: vaudeville.
It was the final day of rehearsals, and costumes still needed to be hemmed and musical arrangements tweaked. But when the cast of director Bill Condon's new production of the 1997 critical darling "Side Show" sang a few bars of the wistful "Say Goodbye to the Freak Show," it might as well have been opening night.
Condon, who wrote the movie version of "Chicago" and wrote and directed the "Dreamgirls" musical, is attempting to resuscitate one of the most curious productions to open on Broadway — the bizarre true story of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, set to the music of Henry Krieger and writer-lyricist Bill Russell.
His production opens at the La Jolla Playhouse on Sunday, where it will run through Dec. 15 before traveling to the Kennedy Center next year.
"Basically the idea was to change what was a kind of backstage musical into a biographical musical," said Condon, seated in a Playhouse office during his dinner break. "It's a show both in music and lyrics that is not ironic. It really does wear its heart on its sleeve."
"Side Show" tells the affecting story of the Hilton sisters, who were born fused at the hip in 1908 and essentially sold into show business as children in England. After moving to the United States, they won emancipation from their abusive foster mother and found success entertaining Depression-era audiences on the vaudeville circuit.
They also appeared in the movie "Freaks," Tod Browning's unnerving pre-code 1932 horror story set in a traveling side show, which featured a number of performers with physical deformities. The two women died in 1969 in North Carolina in relative obscurity, their fortunes as entertainers faded years before.
Krieger and Russell's musical not only chronicled the Hilton sisters' journey as performers, it also used their story as a means to examine the human longing for connection and acceptance. In his review of the original production, New York Times critic Vincent Canby described "Side Show" as "an astonishingly effective musical … less Brechtian than old-fashioned Broadway informed by a sharp, contemporary sensibility."
It received four Tony Awards nominations, including a dual nomination for original leads Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. Commercially, "Side Show" foundered, closing after 91 performances. The subject matter was deemed too off-putting, too prurient to appeal to mainstream theatergoers.
Condon recalls being profoundly moved when he saw "Side Show" on Broadway and in a regional production at Burbank's Colony Theatre in 2002 — one of a number of such local stagings around the country that helped the musical acquire a devoted following.
The filmmaker, whose credits also include the final two "Twilight" movies and the recent WikiLeaks drama "The Fifth Estate," initially approached Krieger and Russell about adapting "Side Show" as an independent musical, but instead they embarked on bringing "Dreamgirls" to the screen.
The 2006 movie musical was nominated for eight Oscars, won two and earned more than $103 million at the box office.
But Condon remained passionate about "Side Show," and in 2008, after spending roughly a year poring through Krieger and Russell's drafts of scripts and songs that had gone unused and re-researching the lives of the Hilton sisters, he staged a reading at the Roundabout Theatre with Erin Davie and Betsy Wolfe as Violet and Daisy.
Condon said there was interest in mounting a new version of the production at the time, but the economic collapse made it difficult to secure the right financial backing.
Several years later, Condon's agent at Paradigm, Jack Tantleff, who also represents Krieger and Russell, was able to broker the arrangement between the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center.
"Grey Gardens" star Davie is returning to the role of the more introverted Violet, with Emily Padgett ("Rock of Ages") playing the more outgoing Daisy. Like the original, Condon's "Side Show" is almost entirely sung; of the 27 songs in the production, 12 are new compositions written by Krieger and Russell. But the score includes favorites such as "Leave Me Alone" and the show-stopping song that brings the first act to a close, "Who Will Love Me As I Am?"
The filmmaker has added other touches as well. A flashback sequence reveals more details from the sisters' early lives, characters including Harry Houdini and a gossip columnist based on Hedda Hopper figure into the narrative — the show even briefly travels to the set of "Freaks" to capture Violet and Daisy's experiences on the set of the film.
Additionally, movie makeup effects artist Dave Elsey created three special masks for the circus performers to give the Lizard Man, the Dog-Faced Boy and the Geek a more convincingly otherworldly look.
"When you first arrive in the play, you don't have the comfort of believing that it's actors playing the part," Condon said. "The whole idea was to really give you a sense of what it's like to be in the sideshow in that period, something that gave you that spooky sense of being among these people."
Similarly, several of Davie and Padgett's costumes, created by Paul Tazewell, physically link the actresses, who in reality do share a certain sisterly resemblance with their wide expressive eyes and pale blond complexions.
"For the first four numbers of the show our costumes are so that we cannot separate," Padgett said. "It's definitely a challenge figuring out how to move with somebody.... The hardest part is going up and down stairs or getting through a doorway."
Davie and Padgett appeared to have no trouble moving in unison, however, as they negotiated the steps and platforms of a spindly multistory wooden structure that loomed over the stage during the final rehearsals.
"My grandmother and grandfather worked in a traveling circus in the '30s," Davie said. "They died when I was quite young, but I wish I could go back and ask them what that was like, if they'd heard of the Hilton sisters, all those things. I doubt they ever met them, but I wonder what they thought of them."
Condon said audiences appear to be responding to "Side Show," which opened for preview performances Nov. 5.
Reports have suggested the production ultimately might return to Broadway, but the director said he's simply focusing on the current run, hoping to further fine-tune the musical to amplify the relatable themes at the heart of Krieger and Russell's work.
"Who knows if it's the right time?" Condon said Tuesday by phone. "I think possibly audiences have grown more open-minded and might be more open to characters who are different and extreme in some ways. I think there's something universal about the question 'Who will love me as I am?'"