11/18/2013 09:33 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Striving for Frenzied Acclaim in CA

My trip to the west coast is bringing me in contact with two shows I have an emotional attachment to: Side Show and The Black Suits.

Side Show is currently having a revival -- some might say "revisal" -- at the La Jolla Playhouse. The production then heads to the Kennedy Center in June in preparation for what many are hoping will be a return to the Great White Way.

Back well before I was a theater reporter, I saw the Broadway production of Side Show. Quickly after I became enmeshed in the theater scene, I made friends with Jim Randolph and Bill Evans, the Side Show press agents, and was regaled with stories about the show's development. Over the years, the musical, so embraced by members of the theater community, has developed a cult status. Even people who never saw it profess to love it. But it was not a commercial success on Broadway the first time, with many citing the subject matter (the lives of Siamese twins) as the reason the musical did not take off. (I'll never forget my mother, a more educated theater consumer than most, saying: "Who would want to go see a show about freaks?")

"The show is so difficult," librettist and lyricist Bill Russell told me during a recent interview. "[For] a lot there is an ick factor and I think it's because people can't inject themselves into that situation; we think of it as a horrible thing. While the subject matter is offbeat, it does have the structure of classic musical theater."

That's true -- in many ways, Side Show is a very traditional musical. It builds to crescendos, it's not self-reverential, the songs express the character's emotions, etc.. That's why I'm so excited to see it again. Not a perfect show, Side Show had a beauty to it, if you could move beyond what people saw as, as Russell put it, the "ick." (A revival of the show at the Signature Theatre in Virginia where, possibly to transcend the ick, the actresses spun apart, was not effective -- with Side Show you have to embrace these sisters' situation, not run from it.) For this staging, the male characters have been strengthened and more of Daisy and Violet's back story is being told.

There are an amazing dozen "new" songs for the production -- about half of which were actually written for, and cut from, the original. At director Bill Condon's request, Russell and composer Henry Krieger gathered and sent all the material they had ever written for the show. (Condon first became involved in 2007, after working on the Dreamgirls film with Krieger, but the production did not materialize until now due to, among other things, Condon's Twilight filming commitments.) Soon Condon was citing to material Russell and Krieger didn't even remember having written.

"We examined every note and every syllable," Russell said. "About 60 percent of the show is new. It's a little hard to quantify -- you can't run a computer scan, because stuff was also moved around. It's substantially different, but the essence is the same."

So people seeing the tuner in La Jolla will see a changed work from the one that opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 1997. And people seeing it at the Kennedy Center will actually see a different show than the one in La Jolla -- the orchestra will expand from 10 to 25 and new cast members will be added. I look forward to seeing this Side Show in La Jolla on Sunday, smaller orchestra/cast or not.

My relationship with The Black Suits doesn't go back as far, as I think Joe Iconis may still have been in high school when Side Show hit Broadway. However, it goes back pretty far -- I believe almost a decade (seven years at minimum). I first met Iconis and saw the show in reading form many years ago, back when Margo Lion was supposed to produce it on Broadway after a "tryout" at MCC Theater. A lot of stuff has happened since then (some of it too bizarre to mention here) and I've seen the show numerous times through the years. An Iconis concert was actually one of the last shows I attended with my friend, Al D. Rodriguez, who passed away over five years ago. The production of The Black Suits currently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif., is its biggest so far. Iconis and his oft-forgotten co-librettist Robert Maddock have admirably changed the show a good amount since that first reading I witnessed. Some songs have come, some have gone. A character I never liked, that of the central character's sister, has thankfully been cut (though sadly with her went a solid Iconis tune, "Joey is a Punk Rocker."). I am too close to The Black Suits to tell you what I think of all this, but I will say that the show is still not ready for a prime venue in the Big Apple. I am happy the show has this opportunity -- it is no longer one of those "what if" musicals; the Kirk Douglas space and vibe is perfect for it. I just believe it may be time for Iconis, who has considerable talent, to move on. I may have said something similar about David Bryan/Memphis at some point pre-NY though, so, what do I know?