Freak showCMU Drama is putting on the musical Sideshow this week. It's the story of conjoined twins working a midway in the 1930s who are discovered and moved to the vaudeville circuit, and their difficulties negotiating fame and romantic relationships.
Margaret and I saw it on Saturday, and my feelings are mixed. The performances were excellent, particularly the singing by Daisy, Violet, and Jake, but the production was overshadowed by a rather lousy book. It feels like the writers repurposed all of the successful elements of other musicals (Chicago: an independently minded female duo. Cabaret: a scantily clad ensemble. Rent: the ensemble simulates sex onstage, and the overall atmosphere is slummy. Les Mis: forced prostitution.)
However, the dramaturg and director both spoke to a small group of us after the show, discussing the ways they altered the show from its Broadway version, making it grittier and more explicit. Their goal was to use the show as a lens to gender, race, disability, and class issues in the U.S. And given that emphasis, I appreciate the show much more. "Freak show" performers were considered sub-human in the early 20th century (sold and even willed away by their owners), and often forced to prostitute themselves and mule drugs around the country. Those with real disabilities were often terrified of doctors, and the real life twins the musical is based on actually died of the flu at age 60, rather than seek simple medical help. The Broadway version, sensitive to competition in 1998 with Ragtime and The Lion King, was a glamorized and lightweight treatment, and flopped after a half-year run. CMU's gutsier version is playing through Saturday.