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Behind The Scenes: 'Sideshow'

Poster from Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks" that is one of the inspirations for the recent musical "Sideshow."
Poster from Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks" that is one of the inspirations for the recent musical "Sideshow."

Musical Inspired By Real Life Conjoined Hilton Twins

Behind the Scenes: "Sideshow"
Preview: 'Sideshow'
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando previews the La Jolla Playhouse production, "Sideshow."

The musical “Sideshow” just opened at La Jolla Playhouse. It takes its inspiration from the 1932 film "Freaks" and the real life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.

When Tod Browning made "Freaks" in 1932 he had no idea that the film would essentially end his career. His sympathetic portrait of sideshow performers used people with real deformities, like the Human Torso and the conjoined Hilton Twins. The film had a disastrous test screening and its studio, MGM, panicked.

"The studio was so scared of it that it hacked it up and tried to turn it into something more conventional and more normal," Christopher Ashley said. He is artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. "In that way the film is sort of like the twins. The world is afraid of them, it’s too intense, it’s too strange, how do we turn them into something more conventional and more ordinary."


But "Sideshow" chooses to focus on the extraordinary.

"I'm really proud of how this musical begins," Ashley added, "The first thing that happens is you meet the freaks."

In one of the key first songs, the "freaks" call themselves "God's mistakes."

"It’s sort of all of the things you’d expect to meet in a sideshow but done with such detail and when you see them all arrayed in front of you, you feel like wow, I am really in that other world," Ashley said. He pointed out that the actresses playing the twins even had contacts made for them so their eyes would match even though most people in the audience could not probably notice. That's the level of attention to detail in this production.

The song from the opening number ends with all the sideshow performers lined up on stage singing, "Come look at the freaks."

The real Daisy and Violet Hilton in Tod Browning's "Freaks."
The real Daisy and Violet Hilton in Tod Browning's "Freaks."

"The term freak is used many times in the show," actress Emily Padgett said, "and it’s a universal feeling, I think that everyone can experience, I think everyone has something about them that makes them feel different or insecure or whatever that may be and I think the show sort of celebrates those things that set us apart."

Padgett plays Daisy Hilton and what sets her apart is her inability to separate from her conjoined twin Violet, played by Erin Davie. When they sit down for the interview, they instinctively sit in the same order as they would as the conjoined twins. And that seems perfectly fitting.

"They are playing the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, who were real women who really could sing and really could dance and really could act," Ashley explained.

"The challenges are we have to move together, we have to go up stairs together, we have to do costume changes together," Padgett said.

"We didn’t know each other before this especially early on but you have to get to know each other very quickly because you are stuck together, literally," actress Erin Davie added.

To research their roles, the actresses watched footage of the Hilton sisters, and tried to get an understanding of how they moved, how they lived, and what they looked like. The costumes and wigs helped to define both the look and the era.

The "freaks" in the opening act of "Sideshow."
La Jolla Playhouse
The "freaks" in the opening act of "Sideshow."

"All of the costumes were designed by Paul Tazwell so he was the costume designer for the show," costume shop supervisor Ingrid Helton said.

"I think Paul managed to take the obstacle of every bit of those costumes has to be paired and you have to be able to move in them and you have to be able to dance in them and created all of these twinned costumes that tell a whole story, I think they’ve got 18 costume changes in the course of the show," Ashley said.

"Every dress was designed with the intent of either being identical or a mirror image. So for instance this beaded dress is a mirror image of the other one," Helton explained.

The costumes chart a course that takes the sisters from plain Jane sideshow freaks to glamorous vaudeville stars. But while their handlers and promoters exploit what makes the sister different, Padgett emphasizes something else.

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie as Daisy and Violet Hilton in "Sideshow."
La Jolla Playhouse
Emily Padgett and Erin Davie as Daisy and Violet Hilton in "Sideshow."

"Just how normal they were," Padgett said, "I mean they, even watching the movie Freaks, when one sister was talking to a boy, like the other sister was reading a book. Everything was a compromise and I think that’s how they had to live their life. One night would be Daisy’s night and one night would be Violet’s night. And that’s just how it was and just how normal they seemed and happy."

"They were fascinating to watch and how they moved together, it was kind of endlessly fascinating, that’s one of the reasons they were famous because people were so curious and loved to watch them," Davie added.

"Here are these two women who have what everybody wants is a real connection with another human being and they have this deep bond and during the course of the story they have to grapple with what is it to find romantic love and the math of that is kind of mind boggling," Ashley said.

Division could be part of the equation as surgery to separate the woman is explored.

"I think one of the amazing things about the storytelling here is you really want them to stay conjoined, there’s an emotional feeling about they belong together and they would be more normal and more like the rest of us if they split apart and had the surgery by the end of the play you feel like there’s something right about them being together and their connected in a way that’s more profound than they could ever have with one of the guys romantically," Ashley said.

The Hilton sisters chose to leave the world as they entered it, together.

You can listen to the real Hilton sisters singing here.

A guide to the performers in "Freaks."

"Sideshow" runs at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss stage through December 15.

Companion viewing: "Freaks," "Chained for Life," "Twin Falls Idaho"