It Ain’t No Freak Show!, Side Show Is Bland and Clichéd

I was sold at auction recently, and it happened like this.

The New York Observer , which you adore, held a benefit auction in a very good cause, and I was Lot 4. When I tell you that Lot 1 was seven nights in London plus the Oxford University Press’ new edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, you will appreciate the big league I was in. The proceeds were to benefit the Children’s Services Division of the New York Public Library, and when asked if I would be auctioned off for a night at the theater, plus dinner, I said No.

The reason I so generously declined, at first, was simply the fear that no one would bid, and the whole thing would turn out to be a total embarrassment. I was convinced they would save their money for, say, a country weekend in the Norwich Inn and Spa, “where you and a guest will be housed in a luxury villa suite, nestled amidst 40 acres of ponds, woodlands and a golf course.” But I was wrong. I was sold for $1,000. A thousand bucks!

Why, I hear you ask, so little? I jest! It’s not a bad price, is it? “Ever wonder why some plays get picked and others get panned?” went the blurb for Lot 4. “Think you’d be terrific as a reviewer? Join our theater critic for a night at the theater, and ghostwrite his review as well …”

Not ghostwrite, exactly. I’d asked that whoever won the bid should also review the show (if they’d like to). They should bring a notebook. All it really takes to be a drama critic is the ability to take notes in the dark.

The auction for the big one, Lot 4, took less than a minute. The opening bid was $500! And the bidder who was hanging in very firmly was this lovely young woman who, it was clear, would not be denied: $800, $850, $900, $950, $950, $950 … Some guy-whoever he was-was hovering. A thousand dollars! Sold for a thousand dollars to the lady in the second row!

I was hers. I was Madilean L. Coen’s, vice president, Prudential Securities Inc., managed futures. Age 30, brimming with dough and desire. I was also, it turned out unexpectedly, her boyfriend’s. Why do things always get complicated ? Her man, Bruce, also of Wall Street, wanted to come along, too, and I confess to a slight disappointment. He goes to the theater, he told me, once a week on average. But that’s no excuse. There were lots of other shows he could have gone to. Still, when we met in the foyer of the Richard Rodgers Theater, it was good to meet them both. They seemed excited, and it was Madilean who was carrying the notebook.

The show was the opening Broadway musical of the new season, Side Show , which tells the story of the Siamese twins Violet and Daisy Hilton. Musical ideas don’t come any odder, or bolder. The real-life Hilton sisters-played with the peculiar, hypnotic precision of synchronized swimmers by Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner-appeared in Tod Browning’s 1932 grotesque cult movie, Freaks . Hence Side Show ‘s opening sequence “Come Look at the Freaks,” a stunner that promised miraculous things.

My fellow critic, Madilean, was scribbling discreet notes. But she wouldn’t let me see them. Sometimes she laughed and applauded a big number. So the show seemed to be going well for her. I had advised only that we not discuss anything about the show during intermission. It isn’t done . People overhear you, and before you know it you’re in a fight with the star’s mother. Besides, things can change dramatically, particularly in a musical. A brilliant Act 1 might be followed by a disastrous Act 2. The audience goes wild, anyway. They invariably do at musicals. But the reviewer must not be seen in a rush to judgment.

Here’s how I felt about Side Show , followed by the so-called amateurs. The musical disappointed me, and I regret that it did because the show’s creators-particularly the composer Henry Krieger, of Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls -have big hearts. I wonder about their heads.

It seems to me there’s nothing extraordinary about the interpretation of Side Show ‘s extraordinary subject. We aren’t after a Jungian analysis of Siamese twins. The choice of subject is bizarre and psychologically fascinating, but this is Broadway, after all. There are no freaks on stage (except sweet freaks). The Hilton sisters, though joined at the hip, may as well be the Andrews Sisters. They are the goody-goody Siamese girls next door.

Side Show is a show-biz cliché with a slightly suggestive twist. Homely Siamese twin meets boy, loses boy, marries boy. Starstruck Siamese sister unlucky in love. Threesome live not-so-happily ever after.

It isn’t daring, but bland. It opens no serious questions about, say, identity and erotic sex, the outsider and society, the abnormal and the “normal.” There’s the tired implication that there’s a freak in everyone. The Freak Within. Would that there were! The world would be a less boring, less “normal” place.

Yet I had thought the opening, “Come Look at the Freaks,” stunning. My pulse quickened as it did in the opening scene of A Chorus Line (designed by Robin Wagner, as is Side Show). We felt we were on the cusp of great possibilities, that we were about to experience the thrillingly new. And we memorably did.

Facing us at the start of Side Show was a set of bleachers. The entire company enters in ordinary street clothes to sit on them. The twins themselves are separate, sitting at opposite sides like bookends. They are all more or less themselves-actors on a stage. “Come Look at the Freaks,” with lyrics by Bill Russell, is one of Mr. Krieger’s blood-tingling belters in which he takes no prisoners. It’s also the only moment in the show that dares irony. In a wonderful moment of pure, imaginative theater, the actors simply hint at their freakish roles, becoming sideshow freaks without makeup or costume.

I thought with such anticipation that anything could happen. But within minutes, I felt that I knew the unfolding show-biz story and style backward. The title of Daisy and Violet’s first song, “Like Everyone Else,” is the clue. “What are your dreams?” they’re asked. “I want to be like everyone else/ So no one will point and stare.” Settle down, find a nice husband, be serene, like everyone else. If only they didn’t want to be like everyone else! Their problems are understandable. But if only they wanted to remain stubbornly and proudly different .

That would have been some message and some show! But what we receive in the clichéd essentials is a backstage story about the road to success and heartbreak of the Hilton sisters-as Dreamgirls was the better-known backstage story of the Supremes.

The ever lovely Madilean was writing up a furious storm during Act 2. A bad sign. It’s customary to watch the show. But in Madilean’s case, one eye was enough.

Over dinner at Orso, she surprised me by ripping into the musical as if betrayed by it. She had enjoyed Act 1 (and enjoyed it far more than me), but felt Act 2 fell apart with a silly love story about getting your man, which reminded her of a Doris Day movie. Two Dorises for the price of one. “It disintegrated to an all-time low,” she told me, “when the duplicitous entrepreneur groped the Siamese twin in the Tunnel of Love.”

And you think I’m tough? But Madilean wasn’t done yet. “I thought it was going to be this major theme about what is beauty and compassion, about bondage, freedom and alienation. But this politically correct musical comes full circle in its duplicity. It turns out to be a disappointingly simple-minded and sexist piece.”

“Easy does it, Madilean,” I said. “Not everything is sexist.”

“The original Siamese twins were Chang and Eng,” she informed me in no uncertain terms. “They were born in 1811 and died in 1874. They were men. Do you think you would have seen a musical about Chang and Eng being entirely concerned with marrying the right girl?”

I had no immediate answer to that. Madilean’s partner, Bruce, had remained mostly silent, a prudent choice. I’m not even going to tell you what he had to say. In brief, in spite of one or two enjoyable moments, he hated it. “I love theater,” he told me. “And I enjoy hating it in some way. It’s an attachment.” Kind of like the Hilton sisters.

But what does he know? He liked Titanic ! Well, he knows a lot, actually. Though not as much as Madilean, naturally.

It had been fun. As the two theater-lovers took off in their limo, I thought: Side Show might think that there’s a freak in everyone. But this I know for sure: There’s a critic in everyone, and some are pretty smart.

It Ain’t No Freak Show!, Side Show Is Bland and Clichéd