– by guest writer David Dudley –
Like many world-changing ideas, the notion to create a rock opera based on the War of 1812 came upon us after a few drinks. This was in the early 1990s, when I was renting a room from my friend and bandmate Dave Israel in his rowhouse on Baltimore’s Fort Avenue, a few blocks from Fort McHenry.
We hosted a house party each year for Defender’s Day, the long-neglected state holiday that commemorates the defense of the city in the summer of 1814. We put a good deal of effort into the theme for this event, dubbed the Defender Bender. One year, the Bender featured a puppet show dramatizing the battle. At some point, the idea was advanced to put on a Battle of Baltimore rock opera. We’d call it 1814!
Dave and I played in a local band called Dr. Tasty, and wrote much of 1814! before and after rehearsals. Inspiration came not only by the pioneering Who concept albums Tommy and especially Quadrophenia, but by less critically respectable fare: the kind of loud and dumb mid-1970s arena rock that we grew up on but were unable to play, non-ironically, in our regular band.
The songs themselves cling to a slender thread of historical accuracy: The central conceit of our show is that it’s the story of the war as recalled by typical contemporary Baltimorean, an unreliable narrator who gets the major plot points right but tends to fudge the details. He also filters the whole tale through a cartoony scrim of hard-rock iconography.
There’s a precedent for this: As Francis Scott Key and Johnny Driftwood (the guy who wrote the old Johnny Horton hit “The Battle of New Orleans”) demonstrated, the War of 1812 lends itself to lyrical grandiosity. That’s probably because the war itself was a bit of a dud. Historians on both sides tend to agree that the whole episode was an unnecessary policy blunder that ended with no real winner. The best thing you can say about it is that relatively few people actually got hurt. It’s up to songwriters to bring meaning and poetry to this debacle.
For years, Dave and I labored away at this increasingly ambitious side-project, even as wives and careers and rationality gnawed away at our free time. It was, we knew, just something that we had to see performed, someday.
In the 1990s, we joked about finishing it by 2012, the bicentennial of the war. And then, suddenly, 2012 arrived. We dusted 1814! off, assembled musicians from the rough-and-ready local band National Razor F.D.I.C., and found a crew of folks who knew their way around a rock opera—members of the prestigious Baltimore Rock Opera Society. Via the BROS, we lined up some singers who were both skilled enough to pull off the vocal fireworks and eager to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the project.
1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera
by David Dudley and Dave Israel
Fort Fringe – Baldacchino Gypsy Tent Bar
607 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera
And ridiculous it is. Singer/actors Moira Horowitz, as the unexpectedly sexy seamstress Mary Pickersgill, and Corey Hennessey (Major George Armistead) perform their signature power-ballad “Big Ass Flag” as a passionate dance of forbidden love.
Robert Bradley gives his villainous Admiral Cockburn the preening metal-god moves and operatic vocals of British Steel-era Judas Priest.
Tim Olewnik’s militia-rousing General Sam Smith storms the stage as a Ted Nugent-esque Second Amendment avenger, while the ferocious Laura Komatinsky channels Pat Benatar as she sings and dances First Lady Dolley Madison’s declaration of American defiance, “I’m no Cupcake.”
For 60 dialogue-free minutes, 1814! rampages though some 18 musical numbers, ranging from bluegrass to synth-pop to power punk to hairy heavy metal. It’s an amazing spectacle, but it’s not quite a joke. Ultimately, the show is earnest in its appreciation of the still-relevant lessons of the Battle of Baltimore: the peril of imperial overreach, the virtue of community resilience, and, of course, the awesome majesty of rock.
Presented as part of the 2013 Capital Fringe Festival, a program of the Washington, D.C. non-profit Capital Fringe.
– Guest writer David Dudley is a magazine editor in Washington, D.C.
Fringe Peeks is part of our ‘in their own words’ series.