When Ken Fitzsimmons took the mic onstage at the Barrymore Theater on November 11th, it was clear that he wasn’t sure exactly what to say. As artistic director for the performance of The Greatest War: World War One, Wisconsin and Why It Still Matters, Fitzsimmons groped around for a description of what we were going to see. And after experiencing the dynamic, multi-media tribute to millions of people worldwide who fought and died in that horrific war, ending exactly one century ago, his hesitation to label the performance was completely understandable.
He could have said it was a combination of stirring, original compositions and early 20th century songs that included both the sunny propaganda and bitter truth in the aftermath of World War One. Or a completely unique collaboration among some of Madison’s most talented musicians and actors, students, archivists, historians, and veterans’ families, to mark the century since the armistice was signed. He might have described it as a loud, kick-ass evening that combined protest songs, a rock concert vibe, a speech from Wisconsin’s own legendary progressive politician “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette, and a stunning video compilation of historic photos, film, and newspaper accounts of “The Great War.” Or a one-night-only reflection of how far this country has come in 100 years, and how little has changed. He settled for the incongruous and vastly understated title of “a rock ‘n’ roll history show.”
Fitzsimmons also searched for the right words when he asked the eager crowd of aging lefties to be patient as they held the house for 15 minutes. With a look of sheer puzzlement, he explained that they hadn’t anticipated a great demand for tickets and that at showtime, people were still lined up around the block, waiting to purchase seats. He also admitted they hadn’t printed enough programs. After all, it was a Sunday night. And the Packers were on.
When the audience that packed the Barrymore, practically to capacity, was finally seated, they were treated to something utterly unique, musically and visually exciting, chilling and thought-provoking.
Fitzsimmons’s well-known Celtic-influenced rock band, The Kissers, performed for the majority of the evening, showcasing seven original pieces that the group’s members composed for this event. A mixture of melancholy ballads and rebellious story songs, the band’s style fit the content like a metal helmet on a Tommy. The excellent musicianship of the ensemble was also on full display; pounding electric guitars were augmented with a tin whistle, mandolin, bodhran, and a rollicking modern drum set.
The Kissers were bolstered by Milwaukee’s November Criminals, a bizarre combination of rap and accordion that they describe as a “non-ironic polka hip hop band,” and The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, a novelty/comedy act that features a grab bag of percussion, banjo and a stand-up bass. Although it was hard to understand many of the Criminals’ lyrics, their intent was clear. And Viper and company added some welcome, old-timey levity to the proceedings with songs like “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” accompanied by a stoneware jug.
Complementing the music was a moving video montage, on a 20-foot LED screen that dominated the Barrymore stage’s back wall. It not only paired each song with black-and-white photos of the time period, the landscape of war and the soldiers who fought, it was a time capsule that immersed the audience in Wisconsin life a century ago. Smoke special effects and stunning lighting design by Jason Fassl further transported viewers from the homefront to the battlefields. Well-known for his lighting designs for theater, Fassl let his inner rockstar play, with red, white and blue beams splashing across the stage, spanning out over the audience, and occasionally meeting the viewers square in the eyes for effect.
Beginning with eleven chimes followed by a moment of silence to mark Armistice Day, the concert worked through distinct phases of World War One, beginning with the end — the tenuous truce that was brokered after all the armies had enough. In the next movement, “Act 1: Europe’s War, The World’s War,” the program highlighted pro- and anti-war songs from European countries, and the statewide unrest that the conflict caused in Wisconsin. Known as “the traitor state” by war-mongering newspapers and politicians across the country, Wisconsin was home to the only senator who refused to vote immediately for President Wilson’s plan to enter the war — Robert LaFollette. (This section of the program was met with cheers from the audience — fans of Wisconsin’s progressive legacy.) Wisconsin was also home to a large immigrant German population that was reticent to fight against their own relatives back in Europe.
Actual letters from Wisconsin soldiers, civilians, and medical personnel were used as the basis for narration and songs such as “Dear Mother,” and “The Happiest Mortal/The Best That You Can Be,” making the show even more personal. The spare and poignant script was delivered by several capable narrators, including the WPR on-air personality James Fleming, actor and musician Scott McKenna Campbell, and Associate Editor for The Capital Times, John Nichols. Nichols’s passionate recreation of LaFollette’s anti-war speech on the Senate floor was particularly moving.
The final section of the rock ‘n’ roll history lesson focused on footnotes from the Great War. The terrific song “She Works on Cars,” distilled both the manual and emotional labor done by women on the homefront, while local musician Hanah Jon Taylor paid tribute to an African American regiment from Harlem who introduced jazz to European audiences, with a rendition of “The Marseilles” on the soprano saxophone. The November Criminals sang “No Man’s Land,” which referred to both to trench warfare and the Sherman Plaza uprising in Milwaukee in 2016. Behind them, newspaper headlines described escalating racial tension that marred homecoming celebrations in 1919 at the war’s end. Perhaps the most surprising tangent was an essay by poetry slam veteran Ella Dietz, a 17 year-old who attends East High School. Providing “the youth perspective” she mused about what her life might have been like a century ago, and contemplated her classmates’ response to a contemporary world war.
At the close of the performance, it was hard not to be moved by the scope and scale of The Greatest War, as well as the vibrant energy that made it feel starkly relevant.