Side Show - Was It Sidelined or Sidestepped?
Many musical theatre fans are bemoaning the recent news that the musical Side Show, the eagerly anticipated revival of 1997 flop musical that ran a mere 91 performance, has announced its closing for January 4th. Fans of the original production are rabid; they fiercely be-cry the injustice of such a compelling work with an electrified, emotionally raw score and an arresting, freakish premise not afforded ample time to find an audience. All who are financially and emotionally invested in the revival hoped that a new production, featuring some book alterations, score changes, and a re-imagined production would make a new case for this musical to be revered for its supposed inherent greatness. Clearly, despite some critical accolades (if not exactly unqualified raves across the board), the new production is closing, having run approximately the same number of performances as the original. Why is it that a show, that has a strong base of musical theatre fans, cannot seem to find the success that many people believe it deserves?
One can argue that that Side Show is a case of The Emperor's New Clothes; that those who believe in it see the potential of its premise and have imagined a musical that is greater than the sum of its actual parts. I would argue that some of this is true. Side Show has two or three terrific musical numbers ("Who Will Love Me As I Am" could melt the hardest of hearts and deserves to be belted across the universe), but there is a sameness about much of the score that does little to reveal new layers to the characters or that propels the plot into the untried places that the daring premise facilitates. There is an argument for an amazing musical here, I just don't believe the authors of Side Show have found the ingredients to captivate the audience who is going to come see a show on this topic.
This brings me to our next challenge. The engaged, invested theatergoer may come and see a show like Side Show (again and again, in fact - I saw The Scottsboro Boys three times during its Broadway run), but as much as we like to believe that our ticket buying power and opinions are at the the center of all of the theatre business's successes and failures, we are the minority and the tour groups, blue hair specials, school field trips, and the family contingent are going to opt for more commercial fare that is guaranteed to please, make them smile, and leave the theatre with a transformative experience on the level a trip to a Disney theme park. Perhaps this is a cynical way to look at it, but if I am considering spending $100+ per ticket to take my family of five to a Broadway show, I am hoping to get the bang for my buck. Much of said bang is artifice, but I am much more likely to see my kid smile at the The Lion King, Wicked, or Aladdin. Why in the world would I take a risk on a show like Side Show? My $500 investment needs to be a slam dunk guarantee. Case in point: the critically lauded revival of the musical classic On the Town is struggling, mostly because it doesn't offer the pyrotechnics and over-miked nonsense that has become the trademark of successful Broadway shows. How dare we judge a musical on its content, staging simplicity, and its ability to make us feel organic emotions? The Bridges of Madison County, one of the finest scores of the last 20 years, featuring a simple but honest production, a luminescent performance by Kelli O'Hara, suffered for not turning the piece into a rafter-shaking event instead of the breathtaking bijou that it was.
Sadly, finances factor into how families and groups choose their theatergoing experiences. The price of theatre has become so astronomical that people cannot afford the luxury of giving a show like Side Show a chance. It is rare that a musical with a hard-to-digest premise succeeds. For most people, the premise of Side Show is NOT what they associate with musical theatre. It ventures into an area that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable for them. Good theatre does this, but mass audiences are not conditioned to take such risks. It is unfortunate, but I believe that Side Show was less sidelined for its weaknesses than it was sidestepped altogether for its subject matter. Whether I like the show or not, this is the wrong reason not to see it. Theatre should lead us to new and untouched territory, probing for the truths of humanity. I may not appreciate how Side Show gets there, but I have to admire its audacity for taking the leap. Shame on the audiences who sidestep the opportunity to grow and be challenged. An unfortunate sign of the times...