"Why are all these heads off?" wail four women in an ominous tune infused with punk fury in Lizzie, a musical about reputed ax murderer Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie and her sister Emma Borden are flanked by their neighbor Alice Russell and the family maid, Bridget. They're upset about decapitated pigeons — birds that Lizzie tended but her father wanted removed from their barn.
The song has an entertaining rage and sultriness to it. With a cast of Leslie Claverie, Idella Johnson, Kali Russell and Abbey P. Murrell, it's a dramatic musical highlight in See 'Em On Stage's production of Lizzie, which runs at the New Orleans Arts Center Aug. 11-28.
The infamy of Lizzie Borden is perhaps best preserved by the child's rhyme, "Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks / When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41." There were far fewer blows, and it actually was her stepmother, not her mother, but the rest of that account is likely accurate. In 1892, Andrew Borden and his second wife were murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie was tried for the crimes and acquitted, but suspicions lingered. Other leads were investigated and there were rumors about motives, but the case was never solved.
"Lizzie is the O.J. Simpson of her times," says Christopher Bentivegna, director and founder of See 'Em On Stage.
The story inspired a musical, written in the early 1990s by Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt. They launched several productions in New York, and after Bentivegna saw scenes from it on YouTube two years ago, he reached out to secure the rights for a New Orleans production. The playwrights asked a bunch of questions, but said no, Bentivegna says.
Undeterred, Bentivegna bought the show's songs on iTunes, formulated local casting and even visited the Borden home in December 2015, certain that he'd produce the show sooner or later. He got permission just as See 'Em On Stage was ready to announce its 2016-2017 season several months ago.
Lizzie fits with what See 'Em On Stage is best known for. It produced blood-spattering productions of Evil Dead: The Musical and Musical of the Living Dead. At the 2015 Faux Real New Orleans Festival of Arts, the company presented Terminator: The Musical, a raucous send-up of the first two Terminator films.
Lizzie is a rock musical backed by a five-piece band. It's not a comedy or even campy (and there's no spraying blood). The music is inspired by the bands Nirvana and Heart and singers including Courtney Love and Blondie, Bentivegna says. It features loud rocking tunes as well as a few ballads, all powered by a smoldering girl group approach.
The musical begins with a song describing life under the stifling Victorian mores of the wealthy Borden clan: "In the house of Borden, there's a lock on every door / In every room a prisoner of a long silent war. ... There are no wedding bells in the house of Borden."
What went on in the Borden family remains a mystery, but Lizzie's vision gives the young women much more than a voice.