Broadway’s ‘Side Show’ Leads With Hollywood Lights, Not Freaky Shadows

Both “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and the Broadway musical “Side Show” take place in the same circus world of human marvels and oddities. But you’d never know it from the ad campaigns.

Whereas “Freak Show” plastered New York with edgy images of three-legged contortionists and creeptastic clowns, “Side Show” goes full-on Hollywood with marquee lights and sequined dresses. It’s only by the fact that the two women in the picture are standing a little too close together that you might guess they’re conjoined twins.

The ad campaign highlights an effort to position the $7.8 million revival, beginning Broadway previews tonight, as the Cinderella tale of two sisters — which it is, based on the lives of 1930s celebrities Daisy and Violet Hilton — rather than as a grim or lurid look at misfits.

“The first time around the show got stamped with the label ‘dark,’ and it’s not really that,” said producer Darren Bagert. ” ‘Two sisters looking for love and acceptance’ doesn’t sound like an odd musical at all. ‘American Horror Story’ makes ‘Side Show’ look like ’42nd Street.'”

With music by Henry Krieger (“Dreamgirls”) and book and lyrics by Bill Russell, “Side Show” ran less than four months in its 1997 Broadway premiere, but since then has amassed a cult following among theater avids who consider the musical an overlooked great. Directed this time out by Hollywood vet Bill Condon, “Side Show” now hits Broadway in a significantly retooled version with new songs, a rewritten book and a tighter focus on the sisters’ characters. (The revival originated in a nonprofit co-production from the La Jolla Playhouse and the Kennedy Center; following earlier runs at both theaters, Bagert jumped aboard to bring the show to New York.)

The first production’s advertising focused on an old-fashioned circus banner trumpeting a side show, with a 1930s-era audience waiting impatiently for a glimpse behind the curtain. The revival’s strategy — overseen by Broadway ad agency SpotCo — features those marquee bulbs and the glamorously dressed sisters standing in a spotlight.

Glamour, fame and Hollywood are all important facets of the story, given the twins’ real-world success, and ads emphasize those elements to highlight the fact that the title has broad appeal — broader than audiences might expect from a show about circus freaks. It helps, too, that “American Horror Story” has landed side show denizens in the cultural zeitgeist. (The upcoming Broadway revival of “The Elephant Man,” toplined by Bradley Cooper, continues the trend.)

In contrast to the minimalist abstraction of the 1997 staging, this “Side Show” goes to great lengths to create a vivid, more realistic setting for the story, with Condon enlisting Hollywood makeup artists Dave and Lou Elsey to design the looks for Reptile Man, Dog-Faced Boy and all the other inhabitants of the storyline’s backstage demimonde.

But creatives and producers insist that despite the new grit, it’s all just atmosphere for a universal story about outcasts looking for a place in the world. That, they say, is the heart of the show and what earned the musical its following, and it’s what might now pull in the crowds that the show didn’t attract in its first run.

“We want people to see ‘Side Show’ for what it is, not what it was,” said Stacey Lieberman Prince, SpotCo’s executive creative director. “We don’t want it to be a niche brand this time around.”

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