An Interview with Broadway Lyricist Bill Russell

Posted by: yetheart, May 11, 2015 9:54 am
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Bill Russell

We’re excited for our upcoming event at the Central Library on May 16, where lyricist Bill Russell, composer Henry Krieger and actors Erin Davie and David St. Louis will perform musical highlights from Side Show, the Broadway musical based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became famous stage performers in the 1930s.

Bill Russell, who also wrote the AIDS tribute piece Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, received a Tony Award nomination for Best Book and shared a nomination for Best Score for Side Show, which was also nominated for Best Musical. We’re honored to have him answer some questions for us about his background, his collaborations and the inspirations for Side Show.

You’ve had a longstanding musical association with Henry Krieger. How did you meet, and what is the secret to your success together?
Henry and I met in a TV studio in LA in 1983. He was there with Dreamgirls and I was with a comedy team I directed called Monteith and Rand. I was electrified by the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls and kept thinking how I’d like to write with him. But it seemed impossible at the time and I didn’t have any ideas to pitch. Then, in 1992, Bobby Longbottom (director and choreographer of the original production of Side Show) decided it was time for us to write about the Hilton Sisters, which we’d been discussing for a number of years. He asked who we should pursue to write the music and I said I’d always wanted to write with Henry and I would contact him through the Dramatists Guild.

Henry KriegerHenry called me immediately and said, “You wrote one of my favorite songs.” I was flabbergasted, as I hadn’t recorded that much at the time. But two weeks prior, Neil Donohoe, Head of Musical Theater at the Boston Conservatory, had sent Henry a bootleg recording of “Learning To Let Go,” the final song from Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, just thinking Henry might like it. He did and had been playing it every day before receiving the fax from me. Talk about synchronicity!

We work well together and have a lot of fun. Henry likes to start with the lyrics first, and that’s what most of the composers I work with prefer to do, so I’m comfortable with that. As we expand and rewrite songs, though, he’ll often write a musical section which I will then set lyrics to. Songwriting is like a marriage and I would have found it very difficult to write four shows with him if I didn’t enjoy him personally.

What gave you the inspiration to write the (musical) book for Side Show? Were there events in your own life that prepared you to write it?
Bobby Longbottom’s boyfriend at the time (1985) had seen the Hilton Sisters’ film Chained For Life, which is a really terrible movie. But he told Bobby it starred real-life conjoined twins who sang, danced and played musical instruments. When Bobby relayed that to me and added, “I think we should do a show about them,” I immediately said yes. The idea of two actors singing and moving together was inherently theatrical.

I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My grandparents were cattle ranchers and everyone called my father “Cowboy.” And he really was. I was effeminate and in that hyper-macho environment I felt like the biggest freak in the world, so it was no leap at all to write about sideshow attractions and conjoined twins. I felt right at home.

Bill Condon directed the recent 2014 Broadway revival of Side Show. He also directed the film version of Dreamgirls. What was it like working with him, and could you ever envision a film adaption of Side Show?
Could I ever! And so could Bill and Henry. In fact, Bill was talking about a film version years before we ever started the revisions for the revival. Working with him was a dream come true. I had a talent crush on him for a long time and had a lovely dinner with him and Henry when he came to see our show Lucky Duck at the Old Globe. He really is a genius and the most giving of collaborators — while being very clear what he wants and a great leader.

This revival was described as “darker” than previous versions. Do you feel that’s true? Any other ways that it was different than the 1997 original production?
I don’t know about darker. I feel it’s more nuanced and that we learn more about the characters Terry and Buddy, for instance — some of it not so nice. The original was more of a backstage story and the revival focused more on the sisters’ biography. The original production was minimal and abstract, the revival more realistic. Also, the original was almost all sung and we cut back on that quite a bit for the revival. There is much more spoken dialogue in the new version.

Side ShowBoth Erin Davie and David St. Louis will be joining you at Queens Library. What was it like working with them? 
A joy in both cases. Erin played Violet in the first reading we did of the new version back in 2008, and when we got to casting for the La Jolla production in 2013 we were definitely looking for a match for her. David is just an all-around great guy.

Any thoughts on a national or international tour for Side Show?
Well, we’d love for either or both to happen, but at the moment there’s no talk of that.

Do you have any theater projects for us to look forward to in the near future?
I’m writing an original musical called Unexpected Joy with my long-time collaborator, Janet Hood. She was the composer for Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens and this is our fifth musical together. The new show is for four women and we’ve been doing readings with Annie Golden and Lillias White, among other great talents.

I’m also writing lyrics for a musical adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’ve always wanted to do a project where I only wrote lyrics. It’s taken a long time for that to happen.