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“Side Show” Explores the Search for Acceptance

The musical about conjoined twins and vaudeville entertainers Daisy and Violet gets a reimagining at the Kennedy Center.

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie play conjoined twins and vaudeville performers in a reworked version of the musical “Side Show,” composed by Henry Kreiger.

When Side Show opened on Broadway in 1997, it was up against Disney’s smash The Lion King. Although the New York Times raved about Side Show’s “passion, empathy, and directness,” it closed after less than three months. “People were nervous about the spectacle of conjoined twins,” says composer Henry Krieger, who won a Tony nomination for his score. “Today they seek spectacle.”

Composer Henry Krieger. Photograph courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The reimagined Side Show—June 14 through July 13 at the Kennedy Center, after a well-received run at the La Jolla Playhouse—tells of Daisy and Violet Hilton, who go from being circus attractions to popular vaudeville performers, and their lifelong quest for love. Played by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie, Daisy and Violet were real performers in the ’20s and ’30s. “They were the highest-paid act in vaudeville,” Krieger says. “Our show humanizes these two girls and the people in their lives.”

Side Show is directed by Bill Condon and has been reworked by Condon, Krieger and Bill Russell, who wrote the lyrics and book. The production includes the new character of Harry Houdini as well as “Auntie” and “Sir,” based on the twins’ caretakers. Krieger and Russell have also added new songs. The team is hopeful that 2014 audiences will be less squeamish about a musical whose central characters go through much of their lives as curiosities. Krieger was particularly gratified by the way high-school students responded to the production in La Jolla. The story, he says, “has a lot to offer young people in the way it deals with the plight of the outsider, which is such a theme in our society today.”

Tickets ($45 to $130) at kennedy-center.org.

This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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