1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera

by John Stoltenberg

Sure to be a breakout hit in this year’s DC Capital Fringe Festival, this hard-rockin’ crowd pleaser is based on events leading up to the 1814 Battle of Baltimore—a rather obscure turning point in the American rebellion against the British remembered today mainly because while observing it, Frances Scott Key, a wannabe poet, penned verses that later became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Had Key been watching this revel-rousing musical flashback, he might well have expressed awe at these rockers instead of rockets.

Among the many delights in 1814! (music, lyrics, and book by David Dudley and Dave Israel) is the fun it pokes at patriotism based in militarism (a founding principle of this country, as it turns out; also the playbook for recent wars). One song, for instance, “Big Ass Flag” (destined to be a signature chart topper if the show moves on to bigger and better venues, as it deserves to), hilariously both celebrates and ridicules the American ethos of excess: “What we need is a big ass flag / What we want is a big ass flag / Our boys can’t lose if our flag is sufficiently huge.”

You don’t have to know much about history to have a good time here. The Yanks and the Brits wage onstage war with hard-driving rock riffs. It’s good guys versus bad guys, right? ‘Cause that’s what history books tell us! Well, maybe not, as one barbed lyric reminds us: “All the villains and the heroes are alike in many ways / But still we keep repeating myths of our star-spangled past.”

I recommend reading the lyrics beforehand (they’re helpfully printed in the program), not only because they are so quirky and quippy but because the blazingly good band sometimes overwhelms the singers’ words. To fully appreciate Dudley and Israel’s composition, I also highly recommend the studio album, recorded by (most of) this Cap Fringe production’s gleaming bright stars. (You can sample tracks and download the album in iTunes.)