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'Lizzie Borden' lives again in musical's revival

Lizzie Borden took an ax

And gave her mother forty whacks…

So begins the gruesome rhyme used for generations by children skipping rope.

It's the prose that piqued the curiosity of local playwright-director Michael Wanzie and composer Rich Charron, who first wrote a musical about Lizzie Borden nearly 20 years ago.

"When we started writing it, we really didn't know anything except the jump-rope song," Wanzie says.

They began to research the most famous double murder of 1892: In the small town of Fall River, Mass. — Charron's hometown — Borden's father and stepmother were found brutally killed by an ax. Borden, 32, was charged with the crimes. After a sensational trial, she was acquitted.

Wanzie and Charron turned the story into "Lizzie Borden: A Musical Tragedy in Two Axe," which debuted at Theatre Downtown in 1995. As the pun-ny title indicates, the show started as a spoof — but along the way a lot of drama crept in.

"It kind of took on a life of its own," says Charron, A Melbourne-based technical writer by day.

The resulting mix of campy comedy and historical drama didn't sit well with local critics, but the show had a successful run. Then, New York came calling.

Scott Schwartz, son of Broadway and movie composer Steven Schwartz (of "Wicked" and "Godspell" fame), took an interest in the piece. Through a series of meetings with Schwartz, Wanzie and Charron worked more than five months on rewriting the script, adding new songs, all the while strengthening the tone of the piece.

"Now, it's definitely a drama," Wanzie says.

In the spring of 2001, nearly six years after its debut, the reworked version was given two workshop performances in Orlando under the title "Lizzie." Producers Kenny Howard and Barry Miller staged the show at the Orlando Science Center's Darden Theater, and would-be investors were in the audience.

But the timing was bad: Period drama had fallen out of favor on Broadway, especially after big-budget musical "Jane Eyre" failed to meet expectations and closed in less than a year. "Lizzie" seemed doomed.

But flash forward 12 years, and our gal is ready to sing once more. This time around, Howard will direct. Among the stars: Andrea Canny, Rebecca Fisher and Frank McClain, who also appeared in the original version all those years ago.

There has been some additional tinkering to the story — but the creative team is hopeful the third time's the charm.

"I've always had an affinity for the piece," says Howard, who has directed more than a dozen shows written by Wanzie. "I was really interested in doing it, especially now with this new idea."

That new idea adds a prologue to Borden's story. Set in modern times, it gives context to the tale about to unfold. One of the story's threads is how the murders and subsequent trial became a media sensation.

It's not lost on the "Lizzie" team that the public still is engrossed by court proceedings — especially if they end in surprise acquittals. Think O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman.

"With Court TV, you can have the entertainment for real," Wanzie says.

"We watch with a kind of morbid fascination," Charron adds.

Wanzie points out Borden has one enduring advantage over defendants in these modern times: "No one sings their names in a jump-rope song."

… And when she saw what she had done,

she gave her father forty-one.

mpalm@tribune.com or 407-420-5038

'Lizzie Borden'

When: Opens Aug. 23; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 8

Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando

Tickets: $18-$22

Call: 407-841-0083

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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