An Overture it Ain’t
A new rock opera tackles the War of 1812
Published: October 3, 2012
On a recent Tuesday evening, the squall of electric guitars emanated from an 11th grade classroom at the Independence School in Hampden. A drum kit thumped, serendipitously, underneath a science fair poster titled “The Rock Cycle,” and the room was strewn with cans of Natty Boh. It was a week and a half before 1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera was to premiere at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, and the cast—representing Major Armistead, Admiral Cockburn, Dolley Madison, and Samuel Smith, among others—was working out the remaining kinks in their unlikely practice space.
Dave Israel, one the show’s creators, showed (former City Paper staffer) David Dudley a guitar riff. “And then you do this bit. . . .” He played a chugging rock ’n’ roll rhythm. “And then the second time you do this. . . .” Then came the hooks as he moved into a Lynyrd Skynyrd-like riff. Dudley chimed in, right in time.
Though some of the arrangements are relatively new, the two friends have been working on these songs since the mid-1990s, when Israel bought a house on Fort Avenue. He thought it important that people know the history of Fort McHenry. “We used to have a Defender’s Day party in September, and every year we’d up the ante,” Dudley recalls. “We had an 1812 puppet show one year, and then we decided to write some songs one year. As we kept working on them, we used to joke that we’d have to get them ready by 2012. But that was science fiction future back then.”
As it turned out, the cultural differences between mid-’90s and 2012 Baltimore worked in the pair’s favor. “In those days, rock operas weren’t considered very cool—to say the least,” Dudley says. “Now, when we started getting serious about doing this, there is a rock opera society.”
He’s talking about the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, or BROS (CP’s “Best DIY Theater”). Known for its over-the-top performances of original, wacky stories such as Gründlehämmer (“Tales of Brotopia,” Sept. 30, 2009), Lunastus (“Cue Lasers,” June 8, 2011), and most recently Valhella (“Valhella,” May 16), the BROS was the perfect fit for Dudley and Israel’s vision, which finally began to come together last spring. At the time, the Canadian Broadcasting Company was working on an irreverent documentary about Canadian participation in the war and came across Jim Meyer’s gonzo take on the Battle of North Point in Urbanite. (Disclosure: Meyer is now a CP columnist.) Meyer subsequently put them in touch with Dudley. “The CBC folks offered to underwrite a quickie performance of some highlights of the show because they were looking for TV-friendly scenes of Americans acting ridiculous,” Dudley says. “And that is what we delivered” for the segment, which will air in Canada on Oct. 4.
When Dudley and Israel, both of whom confess to lacking the vocal range to pull off their songs, first reached out to BROS for the filming of the Canadian production, some of the singers were a bit confused. “We kept thinking, What is this?” Moira Horowitz, who sang in the three-song preview, recalls.
“Yeah, like, is it a documentary or something?” Corey Hennessy, who also participated in the preview, adds.
“Then, a couple weeks before the production, we got together and started doing it, and it all made sense,” Horowitz says.
The highlight of the performance (which also took place at the Creative Alliance) was a number called “Big Ass Flag,” a rousing, over-the-top patriotic sing-along on acid. According to Dudley, it “went so well that we booked the October date for the full production,” and began to put together the complete cast.
The song cycle tells the story of the Battle of Baltimore more or less accurately. After the British burn Washington, D.C., they head north to attack Baltimore from both sea and land; Major General Samuel Smith leads the civilian defense of the city; Major George Armistead defends against the sea offensive from Fort McHenry, withstanding British Admiral George Cockburn’s attack, displaying the “big ass” flag, sewn by a local woman named Mary Pickersgill. Israel and Dudley gave each of these characters a song that tells a part of the story. “We took all of the colorful anecdotes and turned them into songs,” Israel says, even if some of the stories—such as his song about Dolley Madison rescuing a portrait of George Washington—may be apocryphal.
The rock opera is framed by the perspective of an ordinary middle-aged, 21st-century Baltimorean with a penchant for metal and classic rock who only vaguely remembers his history. His song is titled “The Battle of Baltimore,” and each of the participating characters and their songs thus take on a contemporary, relevant feel. With songs like “Too Rockin’ to Lose,” “Black Powder,” and “Baltimore or Hell,” the style and the subject matter are a perfect, if surprising fit.
Corey Hennessy (CP’s “Best Musical Actor”) says Dudley and Israel asked him to play Major Armistead with shades of Meatloaf. Hennessy drew from Adam Ant instead. “Meatloaf isn’t sexy,” says Hennessy, a young man with a sculpted face and baby-blue eyes that evoke Adam Ant far more than the corpulent Meatloaf. “It’s not even sexy to say: ‘Meatloaf.’”
The sex appeal is important here because one of the fictional details in the rock opera is a love affair between Armistead and Mary Pickersgill.
“Pickersgill was a superbly homely seamstress,” says Horowitz, who plays her. “She made a gigantic flag. She was not particularly interesting. You have to add sex—a lot of it.” And so Horowitz based her Pickersgill on Cher. Hennessy clarifies: “Cher in the ’70s for the look, but vocally, the ’80s.”
Back in the classroom, the band is shredding a metal song. Rob Bradley, who, at 24 years old, had just started grade school when Israel and Dudley wrote the songs, grabs the mic, and his eyes go demonic as he starts to belt out a number from the perspective of Cockburn (pronounced co-burn, but what better name for a metal singer?)with the extraordinarily high, operatic sound of classic 1980s British metal.
“They told me they wanted Cockburn to be like Rob Halford of Judas Priest,” Bradley says later. “That was perfect for me.” Bradley sang in heavy-metal bands before auditioning for BROS’ Valhella and landing the lead role of Kar. “I didn’t know there were rock operas, but apparently it is a thing,” he says. “It’s amazing. At the last show people were stage-diving and I look down and there are these bra and panties. I was like, ‘Cool.’” But Bradley had always hoped to play a villain, and for the purposes of the rock opera, Cockburn fits the bill. “I am supposed to act like the biggest prissy prick I can because it is coming from this American’s perspective. And I get henchmen,” Bradley says. “I’ve always wanted henchmen.”
On that recent evening, the production was still coming together. As the band played, a group of dancers lingered, tentatively trying to find their moves. But even then, in that classroom, you could almost smell the black powder in the air as Tim Olewnik’s Sam Smith screamed out the verses: “Feelin’ frisky/ And independent/ Come take a taste of our/ Second Amendment/ Hey! Cockburn’s trying to diss ya/ He says we’re easy prey/ I got a well-regulated militia/ That’s gonna make him pay.”
1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera will premiere Oct. 6 at the Creative Alliance. For more information, visit creativealliance.org.
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