Lizzie: a woman with an axe to grind

"Lizzie" poster graphic. Image: Monica Higgins.

A grisly murder, a scandalous liaison, a sensational trial and a media frenzy – all set to music – come together in the new musical, Lizzie, writes Rita Bratovich.

It was a crime that both horrified and fascinated a nationwide public in 1892. In a small, unremarkable American town, Lizzie Borden was accused of brutally killing her father and stepmother with an axe. But how could such a story possibly be told as a musical?

“It’s bonkers!” director Maeve Marsden tells the Sentinel, acknowledging the unlikely subject matter. A wealthy businessman and his wife are found dead and horribly disfigured in what was evidently a frenzied, emotionally fueled attack. Speculation and gossip soon flourish as more and more lurid details are revealed. The trial that ensues once Lizzie Borden is charged is a precursor to the modern day media-fed courtroom spectacles we’re now used to seeing. 

Written by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, Lizzie is a conceptualised retelling of the story with minimal cast and production but loads of grunge and sass. The music is a mixture of punk, rock and emo, with some soft melodic tunes as well.

“What I really love about the show is that it’s both incredibly dark and quite camp and funny and that’s a fun challenge, as a creative team to make that work,” says Marsden. She has opted for an Australian spin and more contemporary feel for the musical.

“Our version of it is set here and has quite a different aesthetic to other productions you might have seen online.”

Lizzie director Maeve Marsden. Photo: hachette.com.au.

Only four people, all women, are depicted in the show:  Lizzie, her older sister, the maid and the neighbour. Other relevant parties are included by inference. The story is predominantly told via the songs.

“It’s light on dialogue, heavy on big bangers in terms of the music, and really interesting lyrically and thematically,” says Marsden.

“We’re introduced to Lizzie’s world by the maid, who serves as a bit of a cabaret narrator some of the time. So I’ve cast Sarah Ward – who’s a rock cabaret icon – in that role.”

Joining Ward are Marissa Saroca, Stefanie Caccamo and Ali Calder. The stunningly talented Victoria Falconer is musical director.

“She plays piano, accordion, violin, theremin, musical saw. So she’s doing incredible work with the arrangements, which includes all these kind of instruments as well as the more traditional rock band. And she’s also working with the cast on live percussion using the props,” says Marsden.

Victoria Falconer, pictured, is musical director of Lizzie. Image: Phil Erbacher.

Adding to the high pedigree creative team is movement director Ghenoa Gela, a Torres Strait Islander who brings elements of traditional and contemporary dance to the choreography.

The band is on stage, giving the show the feel of a rock performance, with cast members singing up front individually and together.

One of the things that particularly drew Marsden to this musical is the strong queer element in the story. Lizzie is rumoured to have had a romantic relationship with the maid and/or a female neighbour.

“This has my kind of themes, my sort of camp cabaret sensibility, my sort of music and four women – and I know how to make four women’s voices work,” says Marsden.

She was also attracted to the intellectual questions posed by the show and by Lizzie Borden’s story; the fascination around female criminals, especially when they’re violent; the salacious gossip; and the concept of retribution. They are all issues that resonate in the current social climate.

“We’re having a whole reckoning about male violence against women, and in this show she enacts revenge. And so I think it’s an interesting moral question: if someone does you harm, are you allowed to axe murder them in return?”

Lizzie plays the Hayes Theatre, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Elizabeth Bay from Thursday, 13 January to Saturday, 5 February, 2022. For tickets and further info, visit https://hayestheatre.com.au. Lizzie is presented in association with the 2022 Sydney Festival.