Barely off of Broadway, the University”s Musical Theater Department takes great pride in presenting its crowning achievement of the year, “Side Show,” the touching story of two sisters in search of love and fame.

Paul Wong
Daisy (Leslie Henstock) and Violet (Cian Coey): Two sisters who are literally attached at the hip.<br><br>Courtesy of University Productions

“Side Show” is based on the lives of the famed Hilton sisters real-life Siamese twins. Leslie Henstock, Musical Theater junior and Cian Coey, Musical Theater Senior star as Daisy and Violet Hilton.

The Hilton sisters were born in 1908 to an unmarried barmaid. After they were abandoned by their mother, the twins were sold to Mary Hilton, who trained them to sing, dance and play instruments for the public.

After making it big in Europe, the twins met with equal success in the United States and eventually starred in two B-films, “Freaks” (1932) and “Chained for Life” (1951).

The theatrical production of the Hilton girls” story was the brainchild of writer and lyricist, Bill Russell, best known for “Pageant.” Russell was fascinated with the story, and brought his idea to Henry Krieger, who had won Tony Awards for his scores for “Dreamgirls” and “The Tap Dance Kid.”

After Krieger agreed to take on the project, it was only a matter of auditions and rehearsals before “Side Show” was able to open on Broadway in October of 1997.

To bring authenticity to the psychological and personal aspects of the Hilton sisters, Russell interviewed a woman who had kept some of the sisters” personal belongings.

Given the unusual nature of the subject matter, it was not surprising that the critics were expectant when “Side Show” opened.

Unfortunately, the critics were disappointed as “Side Show” received Tony Award nominations for best musical score and book of a musical, but failed to garnish even modest success at the box office.

Incidentally, it was only after rallies were held in Time Square to encourage people to see the show, and the cast guest-starred on “The Rosie O” Donnell Show” that ticket sales improved.

Henstock and Coey believe that the disappointing sales record was due in part to advertising. “Many (people) may be weirded out by the concept of Siamese twins, because the discomforts and problems that they face at first appear hard to relate to, and it”s not what you expect. But there is a way to bring out the inevitable truth of the matter which is that there is a freak in all of us,” they said.

“I think audiences will go into it wondering if they will like it, but I think that they will love it,” said Coey. “And it helps that there are a few songs that will leave the audiences singing after the performance like “I”ll Never Leave You.””

“It is definitely an emotional roller-coaster,” adds Henstock. To get a feel for the part, Henstock and Coey once spent a night pinned together by their pajamas. The night included a trip to Blockbuster where the public”s fascination with the unusual did not disappoint them.

“Of course they knew that we weren”t really attached but it was still funny to see their reaction,” the two women reported. Surprisingly enough, Henstock and Coey are never actually attached, at any time during the performances.

As an added bonus, Bill Russell has made a special visit to the University to witness the performance of his masterpiece. “(The) director has close connections with (Russell) and has been able to communicate ideas and interpretations,” Henstock said.

During the dancing numbers, as well as the other scenes, the two women either link arms or pretend to be joined at the hip to create the illusion that they are Siamese twins.

Both Henstock and Coey were fortunate to be given the opportunity to play such unusual characters.

“This is a once in a lifetime part,” Henstock said, “This is due in part to the scarcity of comparison models. There is little to go on. To date only one CD of the musical score exists.”

In addition, both women agree that the Musical Theater Department is an accurate simulation of the entertainment industry. “So many people are good it is definitely competitive,” said Coey.

Both women seem to be intent on proving their worth as they have made a difficult commitment to the performance and all of its accompanying stress. They have rehearsal every day of the week except Saturday, and these practices usually run between four and five hours long.

Unlike supporting characters, Henstock and Coey are on stage during the majority of the rehearsal. “We don”t have any down time, and are not able to sit down, eat or go to the bathroom,” said Coey.

In addition to extensive rehearsals, Henstock and Coey also have regular classes. The two women”s source of energy seems to reside in the fact that for the opportunity to be on stage, it is all worth it.

“We want to be performing, regardless,” Henstock said.

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