Lizzie the Musical is currently on at the Hayes Theatre, directed by Maeve Marsden and featuring an all-female cast and crew. It retells, in song, the horrific true story of Lizzie Borden, who, in 1892, was accused of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. Adding spice to the crime, Borden was also rumoured to have been romantically involved with the family’s maid and a female neighbour.

A Musical About Massachusetts Woman Hacking Her Parents to Death

If the story of a young, middle-class, Massachusetts woman hacking her parents to death seems like an unlikely premise for a musical, consider this popular little verse that came out shortly after the crime was made public:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,

And gave her mother forty whacks;

When she saw what she had done,

She gave her father forty-one.

It was the kind of crime that inspired rhyme.

It also inspired sensational headlines, coinciding with the beginning of tabloid-style journalism where salacious gossip passed as news.

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A Non-Conventional Format

Marsden, director of the current production of Lizzie the Musical, was drawn to the work not so much because of the crime itself, but the myth and fascination around it and the way it has been imbued with queerness by the writers.

“That’s what really appealed to me about it, is that you’ve taken this dark, quite iconic story and wrapped it up in this quite camp, rock musical bow,” says Marsden. “I’m much more interested in the fact that the real story has been remembered… why do we remember violent female criminals in such a way?”

Written by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner, and Alan Stevens Hewitt, Lizzie the Musical has a non-conventional format. Only four people are depicted: Lizzie Borden, her sister, the maid, and the neighbour. They tell the story mostly through song and brief scenarios, taking us from inciting incidents to the murders, the trial and acquittal. The love story is a through-line throughout.

“This is cool, we don’t get many violent anti-heroines. And in musical theatre you don’t often get four such meaty roles for women in one show,” says Marsden.

Though the actual event occurred in a small American town in the late 19thCentury, Marsden has opted to set it in Australia and make it more contemporary.

The original score has a rock-opera feel with elements of punk and grunge, but Marsden’s production references Aussie musicality.

“The cast recording has rollicking big guitars and ours is, like, soundscapey and dirty guitars and bass-driven. Ours is a bit grittier and antipodean in that sense,” she explains.

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It’s a Sexy, Dark, Camp, Intense Show

Prodigious talent, Victoria Falconer, is musical director, incorporating a unique selection of instruments to the soundtrack, including saw and theremin. Complementing the soundscape is Torres Strait Islander Ghenoa Gela, who provides movement direction.

“It’s not sort of jazz hands musical theatre style of movement but really stylised gesture and body percussion and power,” says Marsden.

Cabaret doyen, Sarah Ward, leads the narration as the maid. The other three cast members are musical theatre elite: Marissa Sarocca, Stefanie Caccamo, and Ali Calder.

It’s a sexy, dark, camp, intense show that, while entertaining, does not trivialise the crime, the romantic attractions, or the suggested parental abuse that was rumoured to be the catalyst for Borden’s actions.

Marsden floats the concept of “reckoning” – sadly relevant in a time when violence, abuse and retribution continue to make headlines.

Lizzie the Musical is on at the Hayes Theatre until February 5.

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