Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and come see the freaks! The weird ones, the wild ones, the strangest creatures on God’s green earth! The dog-faced boy, the bearded lady, the dwarf and the giant! They’re all right here, folks, so buy your ticket and come in to see the bizarre, the amazing — the freaks!
If it were the early part of the 20th century, you could, in fact, go to a circus or carnival and pay a small fee to see ordinary people with genetic disorders and deformities be paraded around like … well, freaks. Times have changed, and we no longer do such horrible things to people who are different. But the story of those people who lived and worked in such situations will be told this weekend and next in the University of Maine’s production of the musical “Side Show.”
“Side Show,” which had a brief run on Broadway in the mid-’90s, is based on the story of conjoined twin sisters Violet and Daisy Hilton. The sisters, born in 1908, started in sideshows before moving onto the vaudeville circuit. They were joined at the hip, literally, but also were attractive young women with prodigious vocal skills. Despite success and fortune throughout the 1920s and ’30s, though, the sisters died poor and alone in 1969 — a fate not uncommon for most “freaks.”
“There is a real historical basis to all this. Violet and Daisy were real people. We don’t call people ‘freaks’ anymore, but during the 1930s, when this show takes place, there wasn’t any kind of respect or help for people who were different,” said director Sandra Hardy, a theater professor at UM. “Freaks were bought and sold like slaves. They often died very lonely deaths. It wasn’t pretty.”
Hardy asked her actors in “Side Show” to make sure they thought long and hard about just whom and what they were portraying. A man born with no arms, or a woman with a condition that leaves her covered head to toe in thick, black hair, is not something that’s there for your amusement. They are real people who must live their lives in a world that’s often patronizing and hostile.
“I wanted my students to really think about who these people were. I asked the students to come to the auditions dressed as freaks,” said Hardy, whose last show at UM was 2007’s production of “Hedda Gabler.” “We used some of the characters they came up with, like the four-armed woman and the half man, half woman. A show like this allows actors to create unique characters.”
Abby Coulter and Hannah Kramer, UM theater students who portray Daisy and Violet, respectively, had to face the challenge of playing characters that not only were completely foreign to them, but also required them to be connected throughout the production.
“It was harder than I thought,” said Coulter, a senior at UM previously seen in “Cloud Nine” and “Bat Boy.” “We’re always together. And now, even though, in reality, we don’t look all that much alike, people in the cast have been telling us we’re looking more and more alike. It’s kind of weird!”
The Hilton sisters, despite the fact that they can never be apart from one another, are very different individuals.
“Daisy is very aggressive, very fame-oriented,” said Kramer, a first-year student, fresh off her debut in last fall’s production of “Scapin.” “Violet is introverted. She wants a husband and a family. They’re very different, even if they’re inseparable.”
After taking on the characters of Violet and Daisy, Coulter and Kramer have grown to love and respect both the real human beings they are portraying and their inner freaks.
“In a way it’s both desensitizing and eye-opening at the same time,” said Coulter. “We become less amazed by the ‘freaks,’ but at the same time we understand a lot more about what they go through every day, and what their lives were like.”
The show, written by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, is equal parts fun, razzle-dazzle ’30s-style revue and serious investigation into how we see one another, freak or not. The music is jazzy and jaunty, and the elaborate set features a 36-foot-turntable that spins around to reveal different set pieces. The cast is quite large, featuring 35 actors and chorus members. Which means a lot of costuming — and not just any costuming, either. Giants, dwarfs, transvestites, the morbidly obese and the rail-thin.
“Costuming, in true theatrical terminology, was a bitch. It’s not easy to costume 35 people who are supposed to have multiple limbs and other interesting features,” said Hardy. “Fortunately, we have a costuming angel, who descended from heaven to grace us with his talents.”
That angel is Frank Champa, a Brooks resident who worked in costume shops on Broadway and taught costuming at Rutgers University before moving to Maine in 2004. This is his second production with UM, after “Scapin.”
“It’s a hard show to do,” said Champa. “It’s not ‘Guys and Dolls.’ It’s a heavier show. There are a lot of challenges, of course. It was so much fun to make the twins’ costumes, because they have such an array of wardrobe changes. It’s nice to work in a period like the ’30s, too. How often do you get to create a lizard man, or a snake woman?”
What Hardy hopes audiences will take away from the production is that the line between normal and freak is not as strong as we think it is. In fact, the big question “Side Show” poses is, “Who really is the freak?”
“It says a lot about our society — how we treat people who are different,” said Hardy. “Too often, those who are different are looked upon as though they exist for the edification and amusement of the normal. If there’s one thing people can take away from this show, it’s that there’s no such thing as normal. We’re all freaks in the end.”
“Side Show” premieres at 7:30 tonight at Hauck Auditorium on the UM campus. It runs again at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 14 and Feb. 19-21, and at 2 p.m. on Feb. 15 and 22. Admission is $10 for the public, free for UM students. For more information, call 581-4704.