In the one-night-only New York premiere of Bill Russell: My Side of the Show at Birdland Jazz Club on Monday, September 25, the Tony-nominated librettist and lyricist traced the development of his and composer Henry Krieger’s musical Side Show, from their initial interest in the subject – the story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were the highest paid entertainers in the history of Vaudeville – through the long process of writing and casting, readings and workshops, and getting producers on board, to its debut on Broadway in 1997, regional productions (including DC’s Kennedy Center and La Jolla Playhouse in California), and a Broadway revival in 2014.
It wasn’t the usual jazz concert or cabaret act for which the legendary venue is known, but more of a behind-the-scenes lecture on a slice of theater history, with lessons in the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of bringing a novel idea for a Broadway musical to fruition and the different reactions of theatergoers, critics, and awards’ voters to the show. The illuminating direct-address recollections of its creator were punctuated by a selection of songs from the original and revised versions of Side Show, performed by four powerhouse stars who appeared in past productions.
Russell’s delivery was detailed, personal, and lively, as he shared a mix of funny commentary and serious observations about the stress and the time involved, and – despite the quality of the show, the acclaimed casts, and four Tony nominations for Best Musical, Book, Score, and Lead Actress (the only time two actresses, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, were co-nominated as a team for their roles as the twins) – how the original Broadway run suffered from light ticket sales and closed on January 3, 1998, following an October 16th opening. The extensively reworked 2014 Broadway revival didn’t fare any better, closing after only seven weeks of performances, but again receiving multiple nominations for Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. One of the explanations he got for Side Show‘s lack of box-office appeal, he noted, was the “ick factor of the subject” (an attitude that presumably wouldn’t hold up today).
Along with his anecdotes about the journey of the show, Russell set the narrative context for the chosen songs, how, why, and when they were written, and introduced the top-notch artists joining him on stage to sing them: Erin Davie (who starred in the Broadway revival) and Jenna Pastuszek, well paired as the Hilton twins; Jason Veasey singing the male roles; and Charity Angél Dawson, who took on the vocals of both female and male characters in this limited cast of four.
Each brought their exceptionally strong and resonant voices to the music and eloquent expressive emotions to the sometimes amusing, sometimes hopeful, sometimes angry, and sometimes heartrending lyrics (including the twins’ 11 o’clock duet “I Will Never Leave You,” which Russell revealed was sung at his own wedding), backed by Musical Director Greg Jarrett on piano, Larry Lelli on drums, and George Farmer on bass. Together they proved the merits of Side Show, made me wish there had been more time for additional songs to be included in the Birdland program, and left me thinking that the time might be right for another NYC revival. Judging by the enthusiastic reaction, the audience wholeheartedly agreed . . . and we just saw the perfect cast for it!
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, without intermission.
Bill Russell: My Side of the Show played on Monday, September 25, 2023, 7 pm, at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th Street, NYC.