I feel like I should preface this article with the fact that I adore the musical Lizzie. Morbid stories fascinate me and I was raised on a weird mix of musicals and rock. This show is, as I’m told the kids say, my jam. But the show has a burning sense of empowerment that I simply cannot shake. The high-powered rock musical presents itself as a story of a woman coming into her own. The fantastic music of the show distracts you from the grim reality of the plot. Based on the infamous 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, Lizzie tells one of the many theories about the case. The story goes as follows.
Emma and Lizzie Borden are the two daughters of Andrew and Sarah. After the death of Sarah, Andrew married a woman named Abby. Andrew is sexually abusing Lizzie. That’s the backdrop of this story. Abby convinces Andrew to alter his will so that his money will go to her instead of his daughters. When Emma, the elder of the two Borden sisters, learns of this, she readies to depart for Fairhaven.
Before doing so, she informs Lizzie of the situation. Lizzie poses the possibility of Mrs. Borden dying before their father. Emma leaves a book on household poisons and disappears to Fairhaven. Lizzie takes the hint and goes to buy prussic acid. However, she is stopped by her neighbor and love interest, Alice Russell. Lizzie tells Alice she believes the milk being delivered to the Borden family house is being poisoned. Lizzie further confesses how afraid she is living in that house before falling asleep in Alice’s lap.
The Bordens’ maid, Bridget (often referred to as Maggie), comes to inform Lizzie that her father cut the heads off of the pigeons in the barn. Earlier in the show, Lizzie seeks comfort among the birds. The barn is also a meeting place for Alice and Lizzie; Andrew actually decided to kill the birds after seeing the two go inside.
Lizzie breaks. She beheads Mrs. Borden and then beheads her father. She calls for Maggie and tells her, “Go and get Miss Russell. I don’t wanna be alone in this house...Father is dead. Somebody came in and killed him.” That is the end of act one.
In act two, the anxious and demure Lizzie is no longer. Now she is an independent and confident axe murderer. Emma returns, and in contrast to the first act, Lizzie comforts her sister. The two burn the blood-splattered dress. Alice catches them doing so. Lizzie tries to stop Alice from telling this to the police. She even uses the words Alice used to comfort her in act one in an attempt to manipulate Alice into silence. It almost works, but Alice tells the police what she saw. Lizzie goes to prison, but is acquitted.
This story is not one of uplifting empowerment. Lizzie Borden isn’t finding herself amidst adversity; she feels threatened enough that she resorts to murder. If that’s not the reason behind her actions, then the motive is money. Lizzie kills Abby first so the money won’t go to her family, and then Lizzie kills Andrew either for the money, or for changing the will.
The show isn’t one about someone having to take matters into their own hands so they can get the happily ever after they would otherwise be denied. While Lizzie does get to live free of her abusive father, she does not get to have the love of her life. Lizzie tries to manipulate Alice into obstructing justice.
Lizzie is not a good person. But I don’t think that should discount the show from being categorized as one about strong females. While I don’t think Lizzie Borden can be thought of as feminist in the same way as Elle Woods, as a role model, Lizzie is a musical about strong women in horrible circumstances. Lizzie, living in abuse; Emma, protecting her younger sister; Bridget, who is hardworking and able to get what she wants in the end despite the Borden family’s racism against the Irish; and Alice, who tells the truth despite pressures from the love of her life. You don’t have to be a good person to be a strong person. Showing women as drastically different and as unique figures is inherently feminist, even if some of those women do horrible things. It’s the idea that having more than one woman in a piece allows for better diversity, and thus a more accurate representation of women as a whole.
(Photo by Ben Meadors)