‘Lizzie’ takes another look at grisly case through lens of rock musical

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 'Lizzie,' a new rock musical premiering Thursday in Philadelphia, sympathizes with a killer who — as it proposes — was the product of a bizarre and sexually abusive household. (Photo by Daniel Kontz)

'Lizzie,' a new rock musical premiering Thursday in Philadelphia, sympathizes with a killer who — as it proposes — was the product of a bizarre and sexually abusive household. (Photo by Daniel Kontz)

The received memory of Lizzie Borden is summed up in a playground rhyme:

“Lizzie Borden took an ax,Gave her mother forty whacks.When she saw what she had done,She gave her father forty-one.”

While popular folklore finds Borden guilty of murdering her parents in their Massachusetts home in 1892 (that house is now a bed-and-breakfast, where you can buy an ax-wielding, blood-splattered Lizzie Borden bobblehead doll to take home), a trial jury at the time of the crime found her not guilty. After acquittal, Borden lived the rest of her life in the same town, Fall River.

Her case and trial are riddled with holes and inconsistencies. People to this day argue for Borden’s guilt or innocence.

Now, she’s ready to rock.

“Lizzie,” a new rock musical premiering Thursday in Philadelphia, sympathizes with a killer who — as it proposes — was the product of a bizarre and sexually abusive household.

“It was a very strange setup in the house,” said director Kate Galvin, who took her all-female cast on a weekend research trip to the house in Fall River to get into the head of Lizzie.

“It was a duplex, and, when Mr. Borden bought it, he made some adjustments. The result was that upstairs there are no hallways. All the bedrooms are interconnected, which is very psychologically unsettling,” she said.

Galvin has been waiting to produce “Lizzie” for years. The authors — Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Tim Maner — would not release the rights to the musical until it had its world premiere, which it did in 2012. That opened the floodgates for smaller, local productions.

Immediately Galvin’s company, 11th Hour Theatre, staged a well-received concert reading. Now she has pulled together the same cast for this full production.

The sets and costumes are period-appropriate, but with a modern edge: the corsets and petticoats have a steam-punk aesthetic to give them a rock and roll feel.

“If you’re going to get inside the head of someone who commits a violent crime, the rock musical element is a great way to tap into that energy and that angst,” said Galvin.

This musical offers empathy for a killer who lashed out at her abuser. The aggressive rock score of about two dozen songs portrays a young woman driven to the edge of sanity.

“It adds some shades of gray to the story,” said Galvin “You know, my impression prior to all my research was, ‘Oh, this is a story of a rich woman who got off because she was rich.’ That’s not necessarily true.”

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