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'The Roar and the Poor

Commentary: What would be lost if the oddball musical 'Side Show' gets hidden in the mega-shadow of 'The Lion King'?

December 07, 1997|Laurie Winer | Laurie Winer is The Times' theater critic

Long the whipping boy of serious American culture, musicals nevertheless can be the most powerful form of theater. Anyone who doubts or has forgotten their potential for rapture need only see the opening number of Disney's "The Lion King" on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre. People will be talking about its particular fusion of music, story and spectacle for as long as anyone is alive to remember it.

As the animals created by Julie Taymor make their way down the theater aisles, creating an aura of mystery, they are pulled forward by ever-building rhythms that climax in the presentation of a newborn animal onstage. The song, "Circle of Life," is about the munificence and the bounty of our emotions, just as the show is about the abundance of Taymor's theatrical imagination. By trusting in that imagination, and through the added power of big money and big hype, Disney has managed to produce a fantastic act of theater.

But what of the musicals that get lost in the shadow of "The Lion King"? This is a busy year on Broadway, with a number of deep-pocket players making bids for immortality in the musical arena. They include songwriter Paul Simon, who has invested some of his own money into his musical "The Capeman," which opens next month. A week after that, Broadway will finally welcome "Ragtime," the first all-new musical produced by the Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky, who, like Disney, has the tremendous financial luxury of owning a Broadway theater.

Accepted wisdom says the more shows, the better--that a crowded season is good for the entire industry. Good shows stimulate ticket sales all around. But "The Lion King" may just be the hit that shatters accepted wisdom, that dwarfs the shows around it. Insiders now guess the cost at close to $20 million, making "The Lion King" the most expensive musical ever produced. Other shows look ordinary next to it.

It's difficult to care about the fate of "Triumph of Love," a wan and unfunny adaptation of Marivaux at the Royale Theatre. "The Scarlet Pimpernel" may or may not find its escapist-fluff-loving audience at the Minskoff.

But there's yet another musical whose life currently hangs in the balance, an oddity called "Side Show" at the Richard Rodgers. Rather like its unusual heroines, the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, "Side Show" demands special attention. Now struggling at the box office to reach the $325,000 it costs to run the show each week, "Side Show" may not make it through the harsh winter months of the new year, when ticket sales traditionally dip. If "Side Show" gets trampled by "The Lion King" this January and closes, it would truly be a loss.

Next to "The Lion King," "Side Show" appears far less opulent; specifically, its sets and its orchestrations look and sound almost shabby by comparison. But, aside from its financial disadvantage--it was financed at $5 million--"Side Show" suffers from a thematic disadvantage as well. "The Lion King" exhorts us to find the majesty of the natural world within ourselves; "Side Show" says we are all freaks of nature. "The Lion King" opens with a ceremonial parade of birth, stating, "It's the circle of life/And it moves us all." "Side Show" opens with an assortment of spaced-out circus people spread out on bleachers, imploring: "Come look at the freaks/Come gaze at the geeks/ . . . Come see God's mistakes."

While the message of "Side Show" lacks the obvious appeal of "The Lion King," it exerts an emotional pull nevertheless. "Some hidden magnet is pulling me back/Back to this strange little show," sings the character named Terry Connor (Jeff McCarthy), a producer who plucks the Hilton sisters out of the freak-show circuit and takes them to the relative splendor of vaudeville. Indeed, the show itself exerts a magnet, a weird siren song, thanks to some magic performed by director Robert Longbottom, making his Broadway debut, and the two wonderful actresses who play the sisters--Emily Skinner (Daisy) and Alice Ripley (Violet).

"Side Show" has music by Henry Krieger, who wrote the classic "Dreamgirls" score, and book and lyrics by Bill Russell. Indeed, "Side Show" offers the irresistible "Dreamgirls" formula--heart-rending music about ambition and the wish to find true love (Sony releases the original cast CD on Tuesday). Further, it uses the women's malformation as a metaphor to explore issues of intimacy and of self-worth in a moving and original way.

Anyone who has seen the actual Hilton sisters in Tod Browning's 1932 movie "Freaks" will have been touched by the central questions of how they experienced their lives. "Side Show" attempts to answer these questions, albeit using a sometimes-too-familiar show-biz vernacular. But if Russell's book and lyrics can stumble awkwardly over cliches, they more often work cleanly and brilliantly to paint a portrait of two "normal" women who must go through life joined at the hip.

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