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"Lizzie" is a whack-job on the legend you thought you knew

No matter the entertainment medium, when something is new and different, you can soon expect imitations both good and bad to follow. (Case in point: Hamilton was followed by a nonbinary and female-led revival of 1776.)


In 2017, a little musical called Six started getting noticed, and six years later, it's one of the hottest tickets in any town it plays. That show took an idea that started way back in the bygone days of Les Miserables and presented the production as a concert, versus a familiar stage musical with scenes and sets and little-to-no breaking of the fourth wall.


Lizzie, a rock opera reimagining of the infamous Lizzie Borden legend, premiered in 2007 -- nine years before Six -- but it has only recently splattered across stages in the past few rotations around the sun. Like the glam-pop punkiness of Henry VIII's wives, Lizzie is a RIOT GRRL headbanger. the female equivalent of a rock-out-with-your-cock-out, fourth wall-obliterating tour-de-force., now being performed at the Concord Umbrella in Concord, MA. The wonderful quartet of actresses grabs their mic stands like they are life preservers at some times, while at others, throwing them around the stage like they're the shackles that male-dominated society has put on them.


Prior to attending the show, I tried to bulk up on some actual facts about the Borden case, through a reliably truthy podcast called You're Wrong About. I agreed with the host when she commented that Lizzie (not Elizabeth, as she often repeats) has been turned into a bit of a punchline, and so I hoped that the musical would set the record straight, or if that was too lofty a goal, at least discontinue the man-made history we've been fed about her so far.


Apparently not. For a show that features only four female-identifying actors and leans so heavily (almost to a tipping point) on empowerment, it's troubling that both the book of the musical and the score were written by three men.


Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about it being unfair that I (a male feminist) am leveling a charge at the authors of this show because they are men, hear me out.


Much of the musical pivots on the following ideas, somewhat sensationally: that Lizzie was sexually assaulted by her father, Andrew (with whom she was close, and who gave her his name as her middle name since he'd reportedly only wanted a son), and that Lizzie was a lesbian, which of course would have been the furthest thing from being accepted at that time.


And sure, perhaps this is true, but could it also be likely that Lizzie was a quiet, asexual woman who had no desire to spend her life with a man, and rather pass her days with the pigeons she kept? God forbid she just liked having a female friend who wanted to chill with her on the regular. The premise of the musical is that she was so angry at not being accepted for her attraction towards her neighbor, Alice, that she flew into a rage and gave her stepmom 40 whacks and her father 41 more. (In reality, she gave each approximately 18, but 40 feels Biblical, which is much better storytelling ammunition.)


What this musical proposes is that, because of her hiding her sexual preferences, she took an axe to her stepmother and father. This rather violent result follows the equation that Lizzie committed a brutal act of double homicide because of the taboo of loving a woman, rather than, as her "friend" Alice begs her, run away together and leave this closed-minded world behind. I don't buy it, especially when considering the historical evidence that Lizzie was said by many to be a dull, slightly odd, but nonetheless likable woman.


To its benefit, this production of Lizzie raises many other intriguing ideas. The Bordens were quite wealthy, and, as you may already know, Lizzie was found not guilty of the crime. Would the case have turned out differently had Lizzie not come from money, or was not white? This may be one of the earliest recorded examples (although certainly far from the first) of white privilege in the courtroom and is brilliantly staged with the witnesses testifying behind a scrim, while Lizzie paces her cell in front.


What contributed to Lizzie's life being saved from the gallows was that the women in her immediate circle protected her from the law, truth be damned. Her housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan (whom they called Maggie, because that had been a former maid's name and the Bordens didn't bother to address her correctly), her sister, Emma, and her friend Alice (whom Lizzie always saw "upstairs") stick it to the man as they form a legal defense which her esteemed male lawyer could not. In one particularly brilliant scene, Alice is questioned by the police, and the microphones are violently stuck in her face at all angles, and if that's not symbolic of how women got fucked (over) by the media and old white men (and still do), I don't know what is. (Less effective: the newsreel footage playing on hanging screens which clearly come from the 1950s, loooooong after Borden's lifetime.)


The set is simple; two scaffolds with moveable staircases -- far from original, and at times it felt more like something to keep the actors busy and serving no real reason for their relocation -- but musical instrument/equipment road cases work well as a variety of furniture: beds, coffins, and fire pits.


The band is on stage (another modern trend I'm starting to get tired of), but the rock score sounded like the volume was turned way down, and many songs ended with little finality so it was hard to figure out when (or if!) to applaud. The balance of the actors and band was off too, and it was often difficult to make out the lyrics, a key component if the show is sung through. All actors wore body mics, so it was further baffling what purpose, exactly, the cordless mics served, apart from a few lines done with reverb, or the aforementioned phallic symbolism.


In many ways, Lizzie feels like a first draft of a musical, or a concept performance. Many of the important themes discussed above are left abandoned in the very abrupt conclusion; what became of Lizzie and Alice? was anyone else ever tried for the crime, such as the Portuguese immigrants the show quickly mentions (and perhaps, safely) soon ignores?


Lizzie does not do anything to raise Borden's story out of the treacly, tourist trap sensationalism it has had to date, but it might, in the future, make way for a more nuanced tale to unfold.

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