Katrina Wood’s “Spindle City: The Lizzie Borden Musical” premieres this fall in Los Angeles. It tells the story behind the murders of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother, for which Lizzie was tried but acquitted. Wood (“Cratchit,” “Farm Boy”) discusses the genesis of her unusual project and her feelings about the production’s anti-heroine.
What inspired you to write the musical?
Originally from London, I knew very little about Lizzie Borden other than she was an iconic figure in American history — the Ax Murderess who killed her parents.
On a trip to Europe in the summer of 2013, I encountered an adversarial flight attendant who refused to provide medicine for my sick son, telling me the medicine would have no effect on him as our flight to Barcelona from Paris was too short to be of consequence.
Being unable to take care of my son evoked such primal helpless rage that I was faced with three tough choices: Tolerate her cold-heartedness, fight for my son or kill her. Being a clinical psychologist I was aware of these confounding sensations, which I believe exist from time to time in the darkest regions of our psyche.
Being aware of such extremes in certain moments, I decided to insist on acquiring the medicine, which the attendant finally agreed to provide — and which made my son feel much better.
Shortly after returning back to the U.S., I stumbled on a newspaper review of a recent book, “Parallel Lives: A Social History of Lizzie A. Borden and Her Fall River.” The real story. It was a 1,100-page book but its content intrigued me. I had it shipped overnight from Fall River, Massachusetts. It was an exciting moment as I felt my fate was being sealed in a way I cannot quite explain. Once I began to read about the lives of the Borden family and the history of Fall River I was sold. This was my new musical; the way was clear. There was so much about this time period, this city, this woman that no one knew — and so my work was to begin.
How do you feel about Lizzie?
Lizzie Borden for me is a conundrum. On one hand a sweet sensitive considerate and generous woman. Especially when it came to children and animals. Throughout her life, she supported several causes in Fall River for the underprivileged and the abused. She was also a very troubled soul, however.
Losing her beloved mother at such a young age caused her enormous grief and pain, which in those days would never have been addressed with real depth of emphatic insight. Consequently she was required to embrace her father Andrew’s new wife without expressing her feelings about the death of her real mother — and appeared to develop deep resentment over the loss of her father to his new wife. Her hatred toward both her father and (stepmother) Abby Borden developed over the years.
Combined with a host of other issues including the Borden name, which in Fall River was parceled into a hierarchy of which Andrew Borden was one of the lesser-reputed Bordens, despite his wealth. Lizzie Borden carried complex burdens, perhaps culminating in one moment of intense and passionate uncontrollable rage — or as the French would say, a “crime of passion.”
There were, however, a host of other suspects in and around Fall River during the later 1800s who also had deep and abiding gripes and issues with Andrew Borden. He was not a well-liked man. Some touted him a miser and a penny pincher, cold and heartless.
At the end of the day it is not clear who committed such evil deeds. This particular tale sheds light on a slice of Fall River that to date is largely unknown and untold.
(Note: A Q&A exploration of the psychology of the cast of characters in the Lizzie Borden case follows the Oct. 22 matinee. Included will be some of the lesser-known details surrounding the mystery, which left ample doubt regarding Borden’s guilt.)
Is the musical about the place and time as well? What was special about the city?
“Spindle City” is not only about the Borden Family. It is also about the plight of the mill workers who flocked to Fall River from all parts of the world during the mid- to late-1800s — in particular Portugal and Ireland. By 1856, Fall River turned from a town to a city, and it was during this period that its nickname Spindle City took hold. It was the largest maker of textiles and iron ore in the U.S., offering an abundance of work for the immigrant population who flocked to Fall River for a new life.
However, the mill workers frequently lived in squalor and were overworked and underpaid. As profits grew, wages were cut to make way for more mills — breeding discontent and unease throughout the working class in Fall River. This is also a story about their lives as well as the Borden family, by whom many of them were employed.
More about “Spindle City” and writer/producer Katrina Wood:
Katrina Wood has taken the story of “The Lizzie Borden Musical” and changed things up a little. An interesting blend of old and new, the songs range from classical influences to blues, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. Each song has its own stamp of the unusual, stripping away the suppressed veneer of the 1890s to reveal a wilder, less-contained range of emotions ever simmering under the surface.