Can Condon’s Freak Show Win Broadway?

The Daily Beast

November 18, 2014

Bill Condon is nervous, but not quaking. The night before we meet, the all-powerful New York Times has been to see Side Show, the Hollywood director’s first-ever Broadway show. The paper’s review is published Tuesday, and Condon will discover if his (for this writer) beautifully mounted, gorgeously sung production—about a 1920s freak show and the conjoined twins who are its stars—is a critical hit or miss. Its future on the Great White Way is contingent on the Times review.

“What happens is out of my hands,” Condon says in a meeting room in the downtown edit suite where he is carefully slicing and dicing Mr. Holmes, his movie about Sherlock Holmes that sees the detective, aged 93, looking back on his life. Sir Ian McKellen plays the title role.

For someone doing, as he puts it, “double duty,” the 59-year-old Condon looks remarkably spry. And maybe that should be triple duty, because he is also preparing to shoot a live-action big-screen version of Beauty and the Beast in London.

This current trio of projects neatly encapsulates the high-low furrow Condon has plowed—a director as happy to work within the arthouse as the multiplex. He won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his 1998 indie hit Gods and Monsters, about the horror movie director James Whale, directed the glorious blockbuster musical Dreamgirls with Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson (2006), and endured some high-profile critical kickings, most notably the final two Twilight movies (Breaking Dawn—Part 2 earned him a Golden Raspberry), and last year’s Julian Assange-themed drama, The Fifth Estate, which was also panned.

Condon can take some encouragement that the Times favorably reviewed an earlier Washington production of Side Show.

“It feels very gratifying having gotten here,” Condon says of his Broadway debut. “I wasn’t nervous until I came back and saw the level of polish and craft there is on Broadway. Suddenly you’re right there in the heart of it, surrounded by stuff that is incredibly well done.”

Whatever happens, Universal Pictures has signed on as an investor in the Broadway show, and Condon is hopeful that in time he will mount, and direct, a film version of Side Show: pretty darn excellent news for Dreamgirls fans.

“Until I came back” refers to Condon’s past: He is a New Yorker who grew up in Queens and from the age of 12 went “obsessively” to Broadway shows. “One of the most influential was Paul Sills’s Story Theater,” he says. “I started to imagine myself doing this. When I was 12 everything seemed to be the most extraordinary thing. Like every gay boy of that time, I saw [Stephen Sondheim’s] Follies eight times. I was speaking to a friend the other day, asking, ‘Why in my early teenage years did this show about things like the decay of marriage, middle age, and regret connect to someone with absolutely no experience of any of that?’ But I was like, ‘Oh god, I want more of this.’”

Condon’s band of three high-school friends would get out of school at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, race down to the subway, emerge at Times Square, then buy $2 theater tickets. “It was a magical feeling, leaving daylight to sneak into a theater,” he says wistfully. “It was the golden age of the Stephen Sondheim/[director] Hal Prince collaborations, and I remember James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope bowled me over.”

Condon’s father was a police detective and a “great writer who revealed himself in his letter-writing. He came home and his detective work felt like the last thing he wanted to talk about, and he never really did—even later in life.” The family was close, “in a crazy kind of dysfunctional way,” he says. Condon’s being gay “was accepted and ignored.”

His parents died a couple of decades ago, and he has spent most of his adult life in California. “I don’t think of myself as sentimental, I’m sad to say, but it’s interesting how this experience of actually doing a Broadway show for the first time—as opposed to movie stuff—has made me think, ‘Oh god, I wish they were here to see this,’” he says. “There’s something about growing up in New York. There’s still a special glow about getting something to Broadway. You’d think it would have faded, but it’s still there. They would have gotten a pretty big kick out of it.”

Condon’s love of horror films—among them ’30s classics like Frankenstein, and Vincent Price’s House on Haunted Hill — has informed his movie- and theater-making, like the circumcision scene in Kinsey and in the last chunk of Twilight’s Breaking Dawn—Part 1 the bloody childbirth scene, “which I shot as much as I could within a PG certification.” Hitchcock, too, “from every period,” was an inspiration.

In his 20s, working in movies was Condon’s first ambition. “The ’70s were a golden age,” he says. “Culturally, movies mattered in such a big way that theater didn’t.” Condon’s entry to Hollywood was unconventional: A producer saw an article he wrote about summer movies for a film magazine and asked if he wanted to write movies. A raft of thrillers, sci-fi movies, and sinister dramas followed. The success of Gods and Monsters didn’t come until early middle age.

“It was an early midlife crisis that made me realize I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” Condon says. “I stopped and held out until I got Gods and Monsters made. Until then, the more personal things I couldn’t get made. The great thing about it was that it proved a point I have always stuck to—only doing stuff that really turns your mind.”

That film, plus Side Show and other projects like Kinsey, about the famous sexologist, reveal Condon as a director especially interested in those living on the margins, the freaks and renegades.

In Side Show, he likes that the two handsome showmen who come to inveigle the conjoined twins away for a life of fame and fortune have their own sense of the other about them. The twins themselves, played beautifully by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett, are our inner voice and outer voice, says Condon. “The journey of the show is towards a sense of self: the who you are in public and the who you are inside,” he says.

Buddy, one of the showmen who comes to woo the twins away, and Jake, one of the freak show members, fall for the same twin, “at a time when it was taboo for an African-American to fall for a white woman.” Terry, the more ruthless of the showmen, is the truly tragic figure, says Condon, because he cannot admit to falling in love with one of the twins.

The audience the night I was there reacted ecstatically—the tunes are as good as Dreamgirls, and the staging is immaculate, particularly touches like a shadowplay conducted by lights and figures against canvas to convey a historical sweep of narrative. It is also funny, and a radical, bittersweet show about difficulty and difference; and so while Condon is nervous about the New York Times review, he has weathered bad reviews before without them invalidating, in his own mind, his creative vision.

“We opened the Toronto Film Festival with The Fifth Estate, and there was an immediate rejection of it,” he says. “Before anyone had critically weighed in on it, we had a Rotten Tomatoes score. The ‘metacritic’ score is the new guide of whether it’s well-reviewed. Today it’s all, ‘What’s your number?’ I’d still rather the old model: One person connects with what you’ve done and writes intelligently and thoughtfully about it. It still feels a fairer shot than this other thing.”

When his Twilight movies got lambasted, “that was more expected,” he says. “I think culturally when you go into something like that you know where it stands. It didn’t reflect how I felt, but I understand it.”

The Assange film’s reception is a more bitter pill to swallow, says Condon, because a critic like the New York Times’ A.O. Scott continues to disparage it in light of films like Laura Poitras’s Edward Snowden documentary, Citizenfour.

“We tried to be evenhanded, and Poitras is squarely on the side of Snowden,” Condon says. “Scott felt our non-ideological playing out of the complexities was anti-dramatic. He may be right. I remain proud of looking at the arguments on both sides. That turned out not to be not a fun experience for most people, but I enjoyed it.”

Condon pauses. “How can I say this delicately, without sounding offensive? With the Assange movie, there are sequences like the [Vincente] Minnelli-like visual explorations of an encryption system. I think people like those stories told straight-up, [David] Fincher-style. I do feel there is a gay sensibility in everything I do, including the Twilight movies. We live in a culture that’s more suppressed now, still dominated by the straight male point of view that bristles against that gay sensibility when it’s too in evidence or when it feels to them inappropriate.”

Dreamgirls brimmed over with “gay,” I say, laughing.

“I hope so,” laughs Condon. “I’ve always said Dreamgirls was the gayest movie I ever made, and it doesn’t have one gay character.”

Beyoncé, he recalls, “had already achieved so much, but she came at it like a hungry newcomer. She was pleasant and lovely, and she was playing someone of limited talent, but she was beyond generous, tamping down on her talent. I admired her for never trying to ‘peek through.’”

The key scene, of Jennifer Hudson’s character singing “And I Am Telling You,” was, Cordon reveals, left to the end of the shoot. “It felt like a big mountain to climb, and I wanted Jennifer, who had never done a movie before, to feel comfortable. To get into that emotional state, she played gospel music her grandmother had played. When we finished the scene, we opened the big studio doors, and it was dark. We’d worked through the night without realizing it. Unbelievable.”

Despite his many achievements and the pride of being “an outsider thrilled to be inside,” Condon says he doesn’t see himself as accomplished. Still, as he gets older, he says he feels more secure playing the role—of the established director—that people expect of him.

“I know people thought I sold out with Twilight, but I was really excited about it,” he says. “People thought my credibility was diminished, and while I think there’s something ridiculous about the word ‘courage’ getting thrown about by actors and directors, the only courageous thing I’ve ever done was taking on the Twilight movies. I’ve seen two movie trailers where people say, ‘Oh my god, isn’t Twilight awful?’ but I loved it. I also loved, just when people thought they knew ‘Bill Condon,’ that I surprised them by doing it.”

Kristen Stewart is “someone I really admire,” he says. “She had all the pressure of people in the spotlight and was unbelievably rigorous about keeping it real.” During the shooting of The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch was becoming a major heartthrob, and his fans invaded crowd scenes to be near and touch him. “At that moment it was new and understandably rattling to him,” Condon says. “He’s easy with it publicly, but privately it was disorienting for him.”

A far-off project Condon would like to realize is a biographical drama about Lorenz “Larry” Hart, one half of the songwriting duo Rodgers and Hart, using his story—Hart died in 1943 at 48—to show the differences between gay men’s lives in Hart’s era and now.

Condon himself does not want to get married to Jack Morrissey, his longtime partner and professional collaborator. “It is vital as a equal right, but it’s not an obligation for me personally,” he says. “If I was straight, I wouldn’t be married. It’s probably just the stunted, rebellious adolescent from a Catholic household in me.”

Condon is proud to be different, to work on the projects that excite him. This he has never capitulated on. If the New York Times review is bad (unlikely), “you hope for the best and push as hard as you can,” he says equably. How does he relax? He smiles. “It seems I find myself at 1 a.m. every evening closing down [New York’s theater-land bar] Bar Centrale. Wine at the end of the night—that helps.”