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Michael Musto

Dreamgirls Director Bill Condon Takes On Side Show & Sherlock Holmes

Dreamgirls Director Bill Condon Takes On Side Show & Sherlock Holmes


Plus: Sting's Ship has docked on Broadway

Photo: Emily Padgett & Erin Davie in 'Side Show' | Photo by Andrew Eccles

An Oscar winner for the 1998 screenplay of Gods and Monsters (in which Sir Ian McKellen played gay director James Whale at the end of his rope), the openly gay Bill Condon has been a major force in films thanks to that and other fascinating directorial efforts like Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and the last two Twilight films. (Plus he adapted the screenplay for 2002's Best Picture, Chicago, scaring up a whole other Oscar nomination.)

And now, Condon is bringing his craft to the stage, having directed and written new material for the revival of Side Show, the offbeat musical about the fascinating lives of conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, which only ran three and half months in 1997, but has become a cult favorite, treasured by diehards. I rang Condon--my old Columbia classmate--to chat up his Side Show revisal (which starts previews tomorrow), as well as his other flashy career achievements.

Michael Musto: Hello, Bill. Congrats on making it much bigger than I did, lol. And congrats on Side Show. But first, let me ask you about Mr. Holmes, the movie you just wrapped starring Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.

Bill Condon: I've been editing it. It's been a crazy month of rehearsing Side Show all day and editing at night. It's like All That Jazz, except without the genius and drugs and the sex--and, I hope, the heart attack. [laughs]

I'm sure the genius is there. Is Sherlock gay in this film?

No, he isn't. We resisted that. He's 93. The conceit is that he was an actual character about whom fictionalized stories were written and he lived through the second World War. The movie takes place in 1947 and asks, "Who is he?" as he is losing his mental powers.

You obviously had a great rapport with Sir Ian on Gods and Monsters.

We had a great time. And it made sense that this script felt like it was written for him. But when we did Gods and Monsters, he was 59 and playing someone in his late sixties, and now he's 75 and playing 93. He was like, "What's next--Methuselah?" I keep forcing him to be older than he is.

You're the devil! Gods and Monsters was such a specialty piece--a real character film and very removed from traditional fare. Was it hard to get off the ground?

That took forever. The $3 million budget took a long time to pull it together. And this one, too.

In the case of G&M, was it because of the gay content?

That was part of it. Everything. It's hard to get alternative movies done.

I'm amazed that you still had trouble in the case of Mr. Holmes. No one's in more franchise films than Sir Ian.

Exactly right. The feeling was that the world had too many Sherlock Holmeses, but ours was such a different thing. It's him in old age.

When you adapted the screenplay of Chicago, was the main challenge to make the numbers fantasies lurking in Roxy's imagination?

That was the conceit of it, but the challenge was to make it work in a way that audiences that weren't used to people breaking out into song could relate to.

And in Dreamgirls, the numbers are onstage as performance pieces, until they're singing "We Are a Family" to each other.

But even that's on a stage, and so is "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." All those things happen on a stage. You couldn't take it and turn it into a performance number. It's Effie singing to Curtis. But on a stage, it's something to make it feel like the audience comfort zone, to remind people of where it came from.

I just judged a lavish drag beauty pageant, and two of the eight girls did "And I Am Telling You..." in the talent competition.

That is so brilliant. I bet none of them wore Jennifer Hudson's flats, though.

No, they were in very high heels. By the way, that song would totally work in Side Show. The conjoined twins could sing it to each other instead of "I Will Never Leave You."

[laughing] A good idea! Oh God, it's a good idea! By the way, a game we played for months was coming up with alternative casts for Side Show. A friend of mine sent me a ticket stub he'd made up for Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. If it runs like Chicago, who knows what could happen 10 years from now? [laughs]

Mia Farrow and Carol Burnett.

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

Even better. So what attracted you to Side Show?

I love the score. The first time I saw it, I went with my friend Charles and we were singing "I'm Daisy, I'm Violet" in the lobby at intermission. I saw it a few times. I thought about it as a movie and got in touch with Henry Krieger [the composer, who also wrote the music for Dreamgirls] about that. With that, we started discussing a lot of ideas.

And you landed on Broadway.

I've been wanting to do something like this forever, and I got my feet wet with Dreamgirls and how much of that was actually rehearsed as a live show and how many of the performances were on a live stage. And putting on the Oscar show [Condon coproduced the 2009 telecast] was like putting on a big musical that only runs one performance.

And I imagine Side Show could be a movie as well?

I hope so.

How much of the piece have you re-imagined?

Probably from the first meeting, I think it's become a more biographical musical and less a backstage show business musical. It's their story, how they got freed from the servitude they had, and this big trial they were engaged in. There's a lot of stuff right there that's worth dramatizing. There's like a 60% new score and an almost entirely new book. It's quite a departure, but it stays true to the essence of what it was. I loved the original production.

Who's your favorite twin: Violet or Daisy?

I can't do that. [pause] Effie! [laughs]

I thought it was weird that they lobbied for the original production's actresses to get a joint Tony nomination [which they did nab], even though the point of the show was that they're such different characters.

Yeah, it is. It's such a hard show to cast. You need people who look almost exactly alike and can sing and dance and yet are completely different types. One is the comic, brassy extrovert, and one is much more soulful and introverted.

And I presume you're happy with your casting? [Emily Padgett as Daisy and Erin Davie as Violet]

I love them so much. We're so lucky that we got them. Amazingly, we've seen them get closer and closer. They have to spend so much time together. There were rehearsals where they were attached. Now that we're not doing that, they're still like that.

You save on the Velcro. Has it ever been an issue that you're an out gay man in the biz?

It hasn't. Early on, I remember--no names--but I remember making a horror movie, and it was hard to cast a role, and one day out of NYU, Billy Crudup came in to read for us, and I was like, "That is it! That's the guy!" But the studio wouldn't jump on making the offer to him, and I heard back that the murmurs were, "The director thinks he's cute." So there was a little bit of bias there. They made the offer late because of this disagreement, and by that time, Billy had representation and he already knew better than to do that horror movie. It usually works the other way. After Gods and Monsters, someone said, "You don't want to be typed as a gay director." But that doesn't bother me at all. The movies I've been able to make cover such a broad range of interests.

I know, like Twilight. Was there an outcry from the Twilighters, fuming that a gay was taking over the franchise?

Not at all.

Oh, good. That restores my faith in vampire lovers. Are you married like everyone else except me?
No. I've had a partner for 18 years, but we retain the right not to marry, too. Obviously it's the most amazing thing that we all have that choice, but I still feel pretty skeptical about most of those institutions. Don't you?

I do. Unlike the Hiltons, I prefer to stay unattached. Plus I don't have anybody, so it's rather a moot point. Let me leave you with a silly question. I know you dated Ryan Murphy ages ago. Do you think it's fascinating that you're both dabbling in circus freaks these days?

I can give you a really long answer to that. But yeah, it is a hilarious coincidence, I guess. I did it first!

Michael Esper in 'The Last Ship' | Photo by Joan Marcus


Sting fans have become conjoined to TheLast Ship, the new Broadway musical with a sweeping score by the ex-Police-man. The show about a shipbuilding Engish town going through changes has a Billy Elliot-meets-Once vibe, with its tale of a wandering progeny, complete with all sorts of foot stomping, drink guzzling, and bittersweet romantics. It also boasts a plot that could be ripped from a 1930s John Ford film, and it's ripe with blarney-ish characters like various spunky bar wenches and a cutely cussing priest who's lovable and carcinogenic. But it still clicks because of its smooth staging, lively cast, and mostly, the music by Sting, who easily outdoes fellow rockers Bono and Paul Simon in his bid to be the new Rodgers and Hammerstein. Alas, expectations of some spectacular ship-building are dashed when it becomes clear that the effects are being pulled off mainly via wood, lights, and suggestion. Well, the town is in a financial crisis after all--and so is Broadway.

Assembling a sort of docked ship of fools,Disgraced is Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer-winning play that brings two culturally divergent NYC couples together to spar about religion, politics, and art over fennel salad with anchovies. Light banter leads to bitter recriminations and sexual melodramatics, with Hari Dhillon as a Pakistan-born corporate lawyer who's left Islam behind, only to find his views challenged to explosive effect. It's heady stuff that's chock full of ideas, but I felt it was a few ingredients short of a recipe for powerhouse drama.



And now for some dinner theater:Buster Poindexter is the long running party boy persona of David Johansen, who first started shedding sprinkle dust as the lead singer of the ambisexual glam rock band the New York Dolls in the 1970s. Well, he's come back Uptown to greet the money crowd. At the Cafe Carlyle last week, I consumed beef tenderloin as Buster sang a smattering of just about everything, while looking droll in an open tuxedo shirt, glasses, and his trademark pompadour. In tip-top voice and full control, he covered fab oddities of country, samba, rock, British musical hall, doo-wop, and even Broadway. ("I Believe In You," which he cracked was chosen because, "I just wanted to do one song that you knew"). The man was like the world's most enchanted jukebox come to life, and he even obliged with a Carol Channing impression--and he told jokes, too. Like this one:

"This lipstick lesbian came into a very butch female biker bar. The bartender said, 'What's your name?' She said, 'Mary.' The bartender said, "Mary? That's a guy's name!' "

Well, here's no joke: I hear that in an upcoming episode of Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox's character, Sophia, will have her wig ripped off in a nasty tiff. And I am telling you she's not going to take that sitting down.

But hold onto your extensions. Another fab diva, designer Diane von Furstenberg, allegedly mussed her hair in a more alluring way, according to her new memoir, The Woman I Wanted To Be. Von Furstenberg writes about her first intimate encounter with mogul Barry Diller when she was 28. As she surprisingly relates: "Sexual tension was rising. When we finally succumbed, it was major passion, and from the first moment our bodies met, he surrendered to me in a way that no one had ever done before." That must have been some side show.

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Michael Musto