Daisy and Violet Hilton were pretty girls, born in England in 1908 and raised in the United States, who learned to sing and dance and had a successful vaudeville career. They starred in a movie and according to some sources they performed with Bob Hope.
But their lives were essentially miserable. In the parlance of their time, they were "Siamese twins," literally joined at the hip.
They're the subject of "Side Show," the final show of the Broadway season at the Players Theatre. It opens April 24 for a two-week run.
"It's powerful," said Players artistic director Jeffery Kin. "Everything in their lives was a spectacle. I think their parents actually sold them."
"Side Show" uses the lives of the sisters, who passed away in 1969, to explore universal themes.
"It's about 'Who's going to accept me, can anyone ever love me the way I am?' " Kin said.
The real-life Hilton sisters were abused by the "parents" who owned them, but eventually escaped and started to build a career in show business, including roles in Tod Browning's legendary 1932 film "Freaks."
The musical follows the sisters for about five years, while they're in their 20s. They yearn to find love, and occasionally they yearn for privacy, but obviously their situation makes both unlikely.
Still, at one point in the show, an African-American man who works with the sisters proposes to one of them.
"She says, 'I'd rather marry someone I don't love than marry you,'" Kin said. "So it deals with race relations, too."
Kin said he doesn't know whether that happened to the Hilton sisters in real life.
The show wasn't a huge hit when it ran on Broadway in 1997 and 1998, but it was well-reviewed. And a couple of its songs, especially the ballads "Who Will Love Me as I Am?" and "I Will Never Leave You" have developed a life outside the show.
The show's music is by Henry Krieger, who also wrote the music for the mega-hit "Dreamgirls." Bill Russell wrote the book and lyrics.
"Side Show" made theater history when the Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who played the sisters, were jointly nominated for a Tony Award for best actress. If they had won, they would have shared the Tony.
In the Players production, directed by Michael Newton-Brown, Alana Opie and Danae DeShazer star as the sisters.
As in the original production, they create the effect of being conjoined by simply pressing up against each other.
"They're separated at one point, in a dream," Kin said.
Traditionally, the Players choose an unconventional musical to end the season. They've done "Hair" and "The Full Monty" in years past, and next season they'll stage "Urinetown."
"Side Show" is unconventional, but in a very different way than those energetic musicals.
"It does not end happily," Kin said.
Details: April 24-May 5, The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 27; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4; 2 p.m. Sunday. No performances on Monday or Friday. Tickets: $25 adults, $12 students. Information: 941-365-2494 or www.theplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.