Preview: Lizzie Borden: An American Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
When we first learn about Lizzie Borden, it’s through an antique schoolyard rhyme, and there’s no doubt. Miss Borden was an axe murderer – and not a dainty one. Forty whacks for Mom, a pause for reflection… then 41 for Dad. But in the real world back in 1892, Borden was acquitted of the gory double murders that had happened at her home in Fall River, Massachusetts. And the actual number of whacks, for Lizzie’s dad and stepmother combined, was less than 30.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of her guilt – and the poetic license taken in her song – Lizzie remains legendary and the prime suspect. But the action hero of a hard rock musical? Writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer sorta had that idea in 1990. Putting together four songs and staging their experimental rock theatre production in SoHo, the duo originally called their confection Lizzie Borden: An American Musical.
Over the next 13 years, the work was reworked, fitfully revived, and workshopped. New songs were tacked on, the skeletal storyline was fleshed out, and Alan Stevens Hewitt joined the writing team. As the work grew to a full-fledged two-act musical – or at least a rock concert musical – the title continued to become leaner. Long story short, Lizzie is now rockin’ on the Queens U campus, transitioning from previews to its official Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opening this week.
From its Borden beginnings, Lizzie has always featured four women in the singing roles. Aside from the legendary slayer, there’s Lizzie’s elder sister Emma, next door neighbor Alice Russell, and housemaid Bridget Sullivan. Actor’s Theatre is taking it way further – presenting an all-woman edition. The sextet of instrumental slayers joining the cast onstage at Hadley Theater will all be women. Ditto the design team, the choreographer, the music director, the stage manager, and the stage director.
Cue Joanna Gerdy. Despite her lofty reputation as an actress, co-founder of Chickspeare, and eminent teaching doyenne, Gerdy has strayed into crass and bloody musicals before, directing Little Shop of Horrors and Bonnie and Clyde. You might think that an actress lauded for her dramatic performances in The Miracle Worker, Macbeth and Our Town would be more powerfully drawn to Joan Baez than Joan Jett.
You’d be right. But the slashing score of Lizzie still grabs Gerdy.
“I love the music in this show,” she gushes. “And what’s not to love? Think Heart, Joan Jett, The Runaways, Stevie Nicks…you get the idea! Lizzie runs the gamut from catchy melodic storytelling, to outrageous punk rock anthems, to evocative ballads. There are head-banging moments juxtaposed with gut-wrenching stillness. There are lyrics straight out of Macbeth, and in fact, a Weird Sister vibe throughout.”
The skip-rope song was all that had ever grabbed Gerdy about Borden when Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker asked her to take the reins. She was happy to find that the familiar rhyme starts off the evening, setting the creepy tone. But it still wouldn’t be worth the effort for Gerdy if things didn’t get serious before they got gory.
“Lizzie unlocks the doors in the House of Borden, shows us what may have been going on behind them, and we can’t help but feel for this trapped, desperate, powerless girl,” Gerdy explains. “Women were living under a harsh Victorian moral code, and Lizzie Borden was likely trapped inside a house hiding even more heinous goings-on. For me, this play gives powerful voice to women in a time when they were often voiceless and powerless.”
So the biggest mystery that Lizzie will explore, with ever-increasing decibels, isn’t the question of if this New Englander committed these horrific crimes but why. What could have brought so much stress and pressure on poor Lizzie that there was only this path forward? Obviously, it will be an accumulation of actions and events.
“From the moment the audience walks in,” says Gerdy, “they should feel totally creeped out, unsettled, off-balance…that feeling that something bad is already happening, and it’s going to get worse. And when it does, it will rock your face off! As the story intensifies and the Patriarchy is smashed, the women are empowered to literally shed the trappings of their Victorian entrapment…and they become rock stars!”
Shedding a walking cane to play the role, Katy Shepherd can closely identify with Lizzie’s feelings of powerlessness. After splashing down sensationally in Charlotte, romping around ImaginOn in the title role of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse for Children’s Theatre, following that up with more grownup triumphs in A Woman of No Importance and Rock of Ages (her Actor’s Theatre debut), Shepherd’s sensational 2015 was followed by a nightmarish 2016. Stricken by celiac disease coupled with severe anemia, Shepherd underwent surgery five times, the last on December 29. The surgery before that had left her bedridden for a month – not even allowed to sit. Now that’s trapped.
“Every day I can walk, let alone perform, is such a gift!” Shepherd declares. “American Idiot [with Actor’s Theatre last season] was my first show back with a healthy body, and our wonderful choreographer Tod Kubo even remarked on how my dancing had even improved since our last show together. I feel so present and grateful being healthy, and any role that I play now will have a touch of that.”
Gerdy hadn’t met Shepherd before auditions and had no knowledge of her backstory. Knowing where Katy had come from to get there had nothing to do with why Gerdy was impressed. Seeing her in the moment was enough.
“Katy’s vocal power blew me away!” Gerdy remembers. “At the auditions, I found myself spending a lot of time watching what people were doing when they weren’t singing or performing. And that’s what tipped the scales for me: She was ALWAYS compelling, even, or perhaps especially, in the moments when she was listening and just being. She made me care about Lizzie and want to watch her, listen to her, and root for her. And those eyes! She can shift from vulnerable to vixen in the blink of an eye – literally.”
The spark for Shepherd comes from how different this supposed murderess is from her, the range of emotions she is called upon to project – and some pretty insane vocals.
“Every song is one to brace yourself for,” Shepherd warns. “This music delivers in a way I have never experienced before. From abuse, to murder, to seduction, to betrayal – it’s all there. And it all ROCKS.”
Nor is Shepherd through battering down obstacles that lie in her path. Taking on Lizzie, she had only three off days in July, and before rehearsing seven days a week until 10 or 11pm at night, she’s holding down a full-time day job teaching at Children’s Theatre’s summer camp. Gerdy has been keeping track, imagining the extra time Shepherd devotes to learning lines, absorbing the music, and refining her portrait of a legend.
“And she has done all of this during her first pregnancy!” Gerdy marvels. “She’s a force; I’m in awe of her, honestly, and am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to work with and get to know her.”
So we finally arrive at the question no journalist can shirk when confronting an esteemed actor who has penetrated into the deepest recesses of Lizzie Borden’s soul and lived there for over a month. To put it rather coarsely: Was Lizzie a lezzie?!?
“Considering that there are only women in this show,” Shepherd shoots back, “and you’ve always got to have a love story, I’ll let you do the math!”