book and lyrics by Bill Russell
music by Henry Krieger
Side Show was inspired by the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, stars of vaudeville during the Depression, who also appeared in the films Freaks and Chained For Life. (Actors listed after character names were the original cast characters of the Broadway production) The Boss (Ken Jennings) runs a sideshow in which the star attraction are Siamese twins Daisy and Violet. Buddy Foster (Hugh Panaro), an aspiring musician, brings Terry Connor (Jeff McCarthy), a talent scout for the Orpheum Circuit, to see Daisy and Violet as Buddy thinks he could help the twins create an act. Buddy persuades Terry to meet them. The two men meet the girls and become convinced that they may be able to get them into vaudeville with Buddy’s coaching. After the Boss rudely refuses Terry’s offer to be cut in on the twins’ potential vaudeville career, Terry devises a scheme whereby Buddy will teach the girls a song. Jake (Norm Lewis), an African-American who plays the Cannibal King in the sideshow and is the twins’ friend and protector, begs them to consider what they’re getting into but the twins are convinced it is their only way out of the sideshow and their desperate way of life.Before a secret late-night performance to try out the twins new song, the twins confess to each other how infatuated they are with the two men who’ve come into their lives. The Hilton Sisters’ secret debut is a great success but the Boss discovers the subterfuge and physically threatens the twins when they tell him they’re leaving the sideshow. Jake comes to their rescue and the other attractions threaten to leave also, causing the Boss to back down. So Daisy, Violet and Jake, whom Terry has invited to help backstage on the twins’ tour, bid farewell to their sideshow family.
Buddy devises a vaudeville act for the twins but before their vaudeville debut, the twins argue about their different ways of expressing interest in men. But onstage their act is a triumph and Terry and Buddy shower them with kisses. The girls elation is tempered by hostile reporters asking tough questions about the girls’ love life. Terry and Buddy deny any romantic inclinations, leaving the twins to wonder if they will ever find romantic fulfillment.
Act II opens with the Hilton Sisters at the height of their success — a Follies-style production number. Daisy’s dream of stardom has come true but Violet seems no closer to her dream of finding a husband. At a fancy New Year’s Eve party, Buddy tries to cheer up Violet and ends up proposing marriage. Afterwards, Terry imagines what it would be like to be alone with Daisy.
But backstage both Daisy and Buddy separately express doubts as to how the marriage will work. Jake overhears Buddy and, in an effort to save Violet from seemingly imminent heartbreak, confesses that he has loved her for years. Violet however cannot return Jake’s love admitting that the world would not allow it.
The big day comes and crowds and hawkers selling tickets and souvenirs arrive. But in the dressing area, complications arise. Jake announces he is leaving. Buddy confesses he’s not strong enough to marry Violet. Daisy offers a solution which will ensure a movie contract dependent on the wedding publicity — she asks Terry to marry her instead! Terry cannot bring himself to publicly acknowledge what he feels for Daisy. She dismisses him and insists that Violet and Buddy go through with the ceremony, which will at least benefit everyone’s career. Left alone, the twins find solace in each other.
As the wedding proceeds, the twins have found a full understanding and acceptance of who they are and what they are doing.