Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
The Lizzie Borden Musical? Well, if Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can have his own musical, why not Elizabeth Andrew Borden? The real question is not, “Why a musical?” but rather “Why tell the Lizzie Borden story again?” Katrina Wood’s Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical (which just completed its debut run at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood) provides an interesting, unexpected answer, enhanced with some great music.
Much of the interest in Lizzie Borden centers on the question: “Did she or didn’t she kill her mother and father?” Though acquitted in the courtroom, she has been convicted in the public imagination, thanks in no small part to the infamous rhyme. To tell a story in which she is actually innocent would be almost anti-climactic: “Innocent Woman Acquitted” is certainly no “Man Bites Dog” headline. Consequently, previous versions have opted for ambiguity tilted toward accusation: both the 1975 telefilm The Legend of Lizzie Borden (with Elizabeth Montgomery) and Lifetime’s 2014 Lizzie Borden Took An Axe (with Christina Ricci) use a mixture of investigatory proceedings, courtroom scenes, and (especially) flashbacks to the murder – which might be showing what really happened or may simply be depicting what might have happened. Either way, viewers are left with the unspoken word “Guilty” ringing in their minds if not their ears.
However, the prosecution case against Borden was weak. Essentially, it boiled down to: If not Borden, then who? The answer to that question is cleverly threaded through Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical. More than just another take on a lurid murder story, Wood’s play explores the social context in which the crime happened: a burgeoning town with a growing textile industry, so successful that it’s metaphorically spinning gold (hence the nickname “Spindle City”). But success doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the populace: wages are being cut; children are forced out of school to work in the mill; and a fire in the work place claims the lives of innocent victims, whose friends and family want justice. And since Lizzie’s father, Andrew Jackson Borden, is owner of the mill, the list of suspects is quite a long one (a point emphasized in the almost abstract staging of the murder late in the second act)
This aspect is merely a thread running through a larger fabric. Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical is neither a murder-mystery nor a police procedural; it sets foot in the courtroom only long enough to set the scene at the beginning and wrap up at the ending. Whereas other writers suggest the only interest in Lizzie Borden lies in her guilt or innocence, Wood strives to emphasize what was interesting about Borden beyond her connection (or lack thereof) to her parents’ deaths. Borden (played by Emily Bridges, who resembles Borden, though she is somewhat prettier) is presented as a Victorian-era crusader for social justice, trying to keep children in school rather than the mill and upbraiding her father for business practices that might be profitable but which are deleterious to the general welfare.
There is little about Borden that suggests a potential murderess, except for the occasional nervous tension and a brief fugue, from which she awakens to find herself walking the street with a paring knife still in her hand, more or less contemplating her version of Hamlet’s soliloquy (she doesn’t say, “To be or not to be…” but she’s thinking it). There are also some cloaked, masked figures who glide silently across stage on one or two occasions – harbingers of the doom we in the audience know is coming, even while the characters remain unaware.
In short, Spindle City is much more musical than horror show, with so much emphasis on Borden and her dreams (she hopes to create an art center in her town, with the help of a New York actress with whom she is apparently in love) that the murder is almost an afterthought, staged with multiple shrouded figures who remove their masks to reveal a virtual lineup of potential suspects.
In the meantime, Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical sustains itself with a profusion of song and dance numbers (sung live to recorded music at the Secret Rose). Not everyone is a show-stopper, but at least half a dozen generated well-deserved applause – thanks to the melodies, the vocal performances, and the choreography. The music does not attempt to evoke the period setting (1892); it mixes contemporary and pop styles, sometimes to humorous effect, as when Andrew Borden (Chas Mitchell) delivers a spoken-word rap gloating about his questionable business practices (such cutting off the feet of corpses in his funeral home, so that the bodies will fit in smaller, cheaper coffins). The highlight is “God Forgive Me,” which comes closest to emulating the feel of a Broadway show tune; performed after the tragic deaths in the mill, the lament uses vocal harmonies to moving effect (precisely delivered by a chorus of a half a dozen or so in this production).
The cast at the Secret Rose was uniformly excellent, but of course the weight rested mostly on Bridges’ shoulders. She turned Borden back into a human being instead of the female equivalent of the Boogey Man; we liked her too much to want her to be revealed as the killer.
With its greedy capitalist felled by a mob of faceless workers and citizens, Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical briefly feels on the verge of going full-tilt Marxist, but the play is actually more of a personal tragedy about a woman accused of a crime not because she was guilty but because she did not fit comfortably into the mold expected of her, a mold enforced by a society that tolerated rather obvious injustice in other regards. Spindle City does not fully exonerate its title character, but it does tell us she was much more than an (accused) murderess.
Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical close on November 5. You can check the official website for news.
Enhanced by great songs, this musical provides a novel take on the Lizzie Borden story, emphasizing Borden herself rather than the crime of which she was accused.