“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one.”
Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) was the prime suspect in the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted, and the killings were never resolved. Despite ostracism from her community, Borden remained in her hometown, Fall River, Mass., for the rest of her life. The case, a sensation at the time, retains its hold on the public's imagination to this very day.
So did Lizzie hack them or didn't she? Those questions might be answered in Lizzie, a new musical now playing at the Victoria Theatre through October 17.
[jump] Steven Cheslick-DeMeyer, who co-wrote Lizzie's music and lyrics, chatted with SF Weekly about the ongoing fascination with the alleged killer.
“Historically speaking, she's not a murderer,” he said. “She was acquitted. I think one reason the story endures is that the case remains unsolved. There was never another suspect. I think the fact that she killed her parents makes the story particularly fascinating to people.”
Borden's story, the composer feels, might bring out the psycho killer in all of us.
“Who as a kid didn't want to at one time or another want to kill their parents?” Cheslick-DeMeyer asks. He also suggests that that infamous Lizzie Borden rhyme has done much to keep the story alive.
Cheslick-DeMeyer explains the personal fascination both he and his fellow composers, Alan Stevens Hewitt (music) and Tim Maner (lyrics) have with the legend of Lizzie Borden.
“This is a story that Tim and I, and later Alan, have been fascinated with for a very long time,” Cheslick-DeMeyer said. “At first, what drew us to it was the fact that its an American legend with a queer love story at its center.”
He added that he and Maner have always been interested in Queer and American stories. “Our work was more overtly political in the early ;90s when we started working on Lizzie,” he said. “But those are still preoccupations for us artistically, and the germ of that is still at the core of Lizzie.”
Eliza Leoni, the director of Lizzie, offered her own take on the story. “The Borden case was shocking both because of its horrifying murders, and because of Lizzie's gender,” she said. “Victorian ideals placed women on a pedestal of piety, domesticity and submission. Far from equal to men, they were celebrated as gentle creatures, and not given the space to be as human as men were.”
Leoni points to more recent cases like Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox, noting that not much has changed. She also addressed how the show was put together.
“Lizzie draws from testimony and historical records to flush out its telling of the Borden murders,” she said. “The story takes place in 1892, but the music is largely inspired by rock and punk from the 1970s-'90s.”
So who was Lizzie Borden? What was she like in her daily life?
“The real life Lizzie was strange and quiet,” Leoni said. “Lizzie the character in our show is a high tension coil about to spring: trapped in her father's house and the victim of abuse. She's desperate to escape.”
The director describes Lizzie as “half rock concert, half musical.”
“Our goal is to make it just as fun for live music fans as for theater fans and vice versa,” she said.
Lizzie, through Oct. 17, at the Victoria Theatre, 296116th St., 415-863-7576.