As the lead characters in the stage musical loosely based on their lives, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton sing such cheekily titled tunes as "When I'm By Your Side" and "I Will Never Leave You." In Side Show's premiere, in 1997, and in many subsequent productions, the twins are portrayed as cover-girl beauties.
But like many of us, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj has seen the real Hilton sisters, at least on film. They starred in Tod Browning's 1932 classic Freaks. And they did not look glamorously happy. "These were girls that were hollowed out, that were whipped and raped and prostituted. They were human chattel," says Maharaj of the twins, whose eventual and reportedly abusive business manager effectively purchased them, in their childhood, from their British barmaid mother. "To really look at them, there's such a sadness and a hollowness in their eyes."
Broadway, where The Lion King and Mary Poppins hold sway, is not lately noted for providing insights into human pain. But as director of a new production of Side Show by Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama, Ramoon Maharaj wants to explore the critically favored show's darker side.
At 32, the New York-based stage artist -- recruited for this production by drama-school head Elizabeth Bradley -- is a rising proponent of political theater. Last year, in the first production of Rebel Theater, a company he co-founded, he directed Ibsen's Ghost, reset in 1981 Jamaica during the early days of AIDS. Current projects include writing, on commission, The Story of the Little Rock Nine, about the integration of Arkansas public schools. Ramoon Maharaj's best-known work, meanwhile, might be the award-winning revival of Damn Yankees, which he directed with an all-black cast, the action moved to the Negro Leagues.
"I definitely have a connection with people who are marginalized, being biracial," he says.
Side Show, with a score by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls) and lyrics by Bill Russell, follows the Hiltons on their Depression-era rise from vaudeville to national celebrity. While it doesn't track them to their deaths -- penniless in North Carolina, still joined at hip and buttocks -- Ramoon Maharaj intends his production to "honor the gritty reality of the sideshow."
His student cast of 20, backed by a 12-piece orchestra, fills roles including the "cannibal" Jake, Reptile Man and Geek. Ramoon Maharaj wants his actors, as well as the audience, to confront basic truths about our very human -- and topically relevant -- tendency to pick sides labeled "us" and "them." Ultimately, he says, "We are more alike than we are different." But in the grip of short-term imperatives, "You can be inside or outside the cage."
CMU School of Drama presents Side Show Thu., Nov. 30-Sat., Dec. 2, and Dec. 5-9. Philip Chosky Theater, CMU campus, Oakland. $24-27 (plus senior/student discounts). 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu/cfa.drama