Director Bill Condon Takes on ‘Side’ Job With Cult Musical

Helmer strives for a dose of realism in his Broadway-targeted reworking of an abstract tuner

Bill Condon makes his stage debut at the helm of the La Jolla Playhouse’s revival of cult musical “Side Show,” and everything you need to know about it can be summed up in just a few words: This time, the Siamese twins really are joined at the hip.

That’s a change from the 1997 show’s short-lived Broadway premiere, which never made the effort to physically link the two actresses playing protagonists Daisy and Violet Hilton, the real-life conjoined sisters best known for their appearance in 1932 horror movie classic “Freaks.” The revival’s corporeal connection is indicative of the gritty naturalism that the director aims to bring to the show, which begins performances Nov. 5 at the playhouse.

“The original production was extraordinary in its abstraction, but I thought it’d be fun to really put the audience in the middle of the freak show,” Condon says. “It’s a more realistic version — a flesh and bone and blood version. You really get a sense of how titillating and disturbing this world is.”

Condon’s connection to the material comes via composer Henry Krieger, who also wrote “Dreamgirls,” which the director adapted into a 2006 movie. Both Krieger and book writer-lyricist Bill Russell have penned a hefty chunk of new material for Condon’s redux (as much as half, by the director’s estimation), much of it focusing on the sisters’ characters, as opposed to the backstage showbiz tale.

Spurred by Condon’s concept, costume designer Paul Tazewell (“Memphis”) aimed to add grit and a faded quality to the show’s look, while the director enlisted Oscar-winning makeup artist Dave Elsey, as well as Lou Elsey, to render the cosmetics for characters with names like Dog-Faced Boy and Reptile Man.

The production, a joint nonprofit staging from La Jolla and D.C.’s Kennedy Center (where the show will play in summer 2014), hasn’t officially been earmarked for Broadway yet. But given its pedigree, the legit industry’s keeping a careful eye on it.

If the musical does in fact make it to New York, it’ll have to be scheduled between Condon’s film gigs. After “Side Show,” he goes into production for “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” the Ian McKellen topliner about an elderly Sherlock Holmes.

Just before the musical, Condon was finishing up work on “The Fifth Estate,” the Julian Assange movie that premiered at Toronto and went on to garner disappointing box office numbers. “Right from Toronto, I came here,” the director says. “It was good therapy, I guess.”

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