In 1892 on a sweltering August day in a small New England town, a well-to-do elderly man and his second wife were brutally murdered with an axe in broad daylight. Lizzie Borden, their youngest daughter, was the primary suspect. She was arrested and tried, but, with no witnesses to the hideous crime, she was acquitted. The murders remain unsolved to this day.
Though the actual history of Lizzie Borden has provided us with inspiration and raw material, her legend, which comes down to us as a jump rope rhyme, is the imaginative core of LIZZIE:
History tells us Lizzie Borden was innocent, but the legend leaves no doubt about her guilt.
—Steven, Tim, and Alan
LIZZIE began life as a four-song experimental theater/rock show hybrid created by writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer for tiny mythic theater company’s American Living Room festival in 1990. Lizzie Borden: An American Musical sprang from Tim and Steven’s love of musicals, Americana, women rockers, and late-80s queer politics. One very sweaty summer night, four women in front of a four-piece rock band took the stage in an un-airconditioned former factory in Soho, an axe descended from the ceiling, blood was spilled, and LIZZIE was born.
A few years later, LIZZIE made its next appearance as an extended one-act in the mainstage season of HERE, the newly opened downtown arts center. Steven and Tim wrote six new songs and shortened the name to Lizzie Borden. The singers were backed by Staten Island hard rock band, Stealth.
Though longer and more fleshed out, this version still had more volume, grit, and blood than narrative clarity. Then, like most downtown experimental theater, after a short run, everyone moved on to the next project, and LIZZIE was just a sweet memory for the small number of people who created and experienced it.
Among the people who saw the show at HERE and remembered it were Hillary Richard and Peter McCabe. Hillary had a hunch the show could attract a wide audience with some rewriting, a budget, and a longer run, but she was a young law student at the time, her boyfriend Peter a playwright, so her hunch stayed just a hunch. But in 2007, when Peter asked Hillary (now an attorney and his wife) what she wanted for her birthday, she replied, “I want the rights to Lizzie.”
Peter and Hillary provided support for a years-long development process, starting with an artists’ retreat where Tim and Steven wrote another batch of songs and overhauled the book, focusing on the narrative. Their early confrontational aesthetic had mellowed in the intervening years, and they’d come to realize that fewer and fewer people knew about Lizzie Borden. LIZZIE would still be a big, loud rock show but a big, loud rock show that told a story.
For a staged reading in preparation for a New York production, Steven and Tim needed someone to arrange the songs and lead the band since Steven was by then living in Austin. With his rock experience and classical training, Alan Stevens Hewitt was the perfect guy. He was brought on board at the beginning of 2009.
Steven had met Alan in Philadelphia when Steven’s old-time country duo opened for Alan’s band, The Low Road. They became fans of each other’s music, shared some gigs, and become friends. Around the time Steven left New York, Alan’s band had broken up and he moved to New York to study composition at Mannes College of Music.
The three began to work together — revising songs, fleshing out arrangements, and creating new material — and it clicked. They were now a three-man creative team. The wide-ranging combined experience of the three gives LIZZIE a sound that owes less to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim than it does to Heart, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Grace Slick, Radiohead, and the Runaways.
This phase of development culminated in a production — again directed by Tim, with Alan’s musical direction (and bass and keyboard playing) and produced by Hillary and Peter (Took An Axe Productions) — that ran for six weeks in fall 2009 at The Living Theatre on New York’s Lower East Side with sell-out crowds, great reviews, and three Drama Desk nominations.
Branden Huldeen, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s New Works Director, was in the audience at The Living Theatre and encouraged the writers to submit LIZZIE to the NAMT Festival of New Musicals, an annual industry event showcasing new musicals. A 45-minute reading was presented in the 2010 festival. There, the writers met Van Dean and Kenny Howard (the Broadway Consortium) and Brisa Trinchero and Corey Brunish (Brunish/Trinchero), who came together to option the show for two years, during which it was presented in a staged reading in Village Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals in Issaquah, Washington, in concert at Ars Nova in New York, and returned to Village Theatre the following year for a developmental production directed by Kent Nicholson. 2012 also brought a co-production by Baldwin-Wallace College and Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare (directed by Victoria Bussert, who directed the NAMT presentation).
Throughout these developmental productions all over the country, Tim, Alan, and Steven continued to revise the show, making big changes in Act I, including additional songs for Lizzie and Alice, and adding a new finale. Building on his arrangements for the 2009 production and incorporating all the subsequent changes and new material, Alan fully orchestrated the now nearly sung-through rock score.
The first half of 2013 found the team creating the LIZZIE: Studio Album. (More on this below and on our Studio Album page)
This new, final version of the show — now and forever entitled, simply, LIZZIE — debuted in the fall of 2013 in a developmental production directed by Kent Nicholson at Theater Under the Stars in Houston, inaugurating their new “TUTS Underground” season of edgy musicals.
From the beginning, the LIZZIE writers were inspired by the great rock concept albums of the 70s (Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Wall). So, rather than take the traditional route of an after-the-fact cast recording, they decided to actually make a proper studio concept album. Alan, at the helm as producer, recorded LIZZIE: The Studio Album in winter/spring 2013, featuring Carrie Manolakos (Lizzie), Storm Large (Emma), Carrie Cimma (Bridget), and Ryah Nixon (Alice), at Virtue and Vice Studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and at Spin Recording, LIC Queens. The album was engineered by Anthony “Rocky” Gallo (John Legend, Carrie Underwood, Norah Jones, Mos Def, Carly Simon, Jon Bon Jovi, among many others) and mastered by Dave McNair, who mastered David Bowie’s The Next Day. Broadway Records released it in the fall of 2013. A limited-edition Danish-import gatefold vinyl double-album was released by Fredericia Teater in April 2014.
LIZZIE’s European premiere opened in March 2014 at Fredericia Teater in Denmark, sung in Danish, with Victoria Bussert returning to direct and Søren Møller as Artistic Director/Producer. Reviews were ecstatic. The production will run through June.
Portland Center Stage will bring LIZZIE back to the West Coast in an all-new production directed by Rose Riordan closing out their mainstage season in the 600-seat Gerding Theater in downtown Portland, Oregon opening May 30. Get tickets here.