Ken Fitzsimmons’ World War I multimedia musical production, playing the Barrymore Theatre Nov. 11, the 100th anniversary of the war’s armistice, will be unlike anything Madison concertgoers have ever seen.
“I don’t know of any show like this. So it’s hard for me to compare it to anything,” said Fitzsimmons, the frontman and founder of the Kissers, a 20-year-old Madison Irish rock band, and the main force behind “The Greatest War: World War One, Wisconsin, and Why It Still Matters.”
Billed as “a live rock and roll history show,” “The Greatest War” will feature 21 songs, not just about the war itself, but also about Wisconsinites at the time, Fitzsimmons said.
The music will be performed in front of images displayed on a 20-foot LED video wall that’s being donated for the night by Blizzard Lighting in Waukesha. Photos, film, art and newspaper headlines relating to the war will be part of the backdrop.
Fitzsimmons, the project’s artistic director, has written seven new songs the Kissers will perform at the show. Local musician Sean Michael Dargan will add an original song about the Lusitania, the British cargo and passenger ship sunk by a German submarine that indirectly contributed to the United States entering the war. Its sinking near Ireland killed nearly 1,200 people, including more than 100 Americans.
Also taking part in the show will be the Milwaukee polka hip-hop band November Criminals, which John Wedge, “The Greatest War’s” co-producer, enlisted for the project.
The band’s name is an indication of its interest in World War I, said Wedge, explaining that November Criminals was the name given as an insult to the German negotiators who signed a peace agreement at the end of the war.
November Criminals write songs about the time immediately following World War I, and try to get people to think about the issues at the time, and the modern day, contemporary parallels, he said.
“They’re a really interesting bunch of guys,” said the British-born Wedge, who holds a doctorate in American history, and is a member of the Periodicals, a Madison band.
The Milwaukee-based The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, is also performing in “The Greatest War.” The band’s leader, Ryan Jerving, lives in Milwaukee, but members live in four cities and three states, Jerving said.
For the production, the band will include a 6-string banjo, trombone, ceramic jug, stand-up bass, and suitcase. The band will play some WWI period songs, plus one 1919-styled song written especially for the show. The show’s full program is available at thegreatestwar.org.
Fitzsimmons said he’s gotten some discouraging reactions as he’s told people about his World War I show. “What an obscure topic,” said one person.
“You know what I think when I hear World War I? That I want to go to sleep,” said another.
But Fitzsimmons has worked to make his songs as interesting as possible, so audiences get an important history lesson wrapped up as entertainment.
In 1917, voters in a number of Wisconsin cities overwhelmingly voted down referendums supporting a declaration of war. And as the United States was being pulled into the conflict, U.S. Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette voted against declaring war, as did nine of Wisconsin’s 11 U.S. representatives.
Wisconsin became known to some as the “Traitor State,” and Fitzsimmons has written a song by that name with the line, “Don’t fear Wisconsin, dissent is the American way.”
The Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum have donated archival materials, and letters and diaries from soldiers and those at home at the time will be read before some songs.
There was no single event that caused World War I, but it began in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
During the war, the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) fought the Allied Powers (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States). By 1918, when the Allied Powers claimed victory, at least eight million people had died. Estimates of casualties vary.
“There was a real strong anti-war sentiment in Wisconsin, so they were pacifists,” Fitzsimmons said. “And then there were German Americans who were really not into going to war to fight their relatives.”
Captured on film
Dargan, who’s had the Sean Michael Dargan band for 30 years and spent five years in the Kissers, will perform his original song, “In the Belly of the Lusitania,” and will play a traditional tune on bagpipes near the end of the show.
He’s also part of the popular local band Get Back Wisconsin, which re-creates Beatles albums live as the recordings each celebrate their 50th anniversary. The band is playing the Beatles’ “The White Album” at the Barrymore five days after “The Greatest War.” Last year, their “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” concert sold out the theater.
Fitzsimmons originally envisioned The Greatest War project 12 years ago as a silent film accompanied by classical music and some period folk and world music, as well as WWI-themed pop songs. It wasn’t until this year that he and his collaborators decided to make it a rock and roll history show.
Back then, when Fitzsimmons was first discussing the concept, Dargan was impressed by his breadth of knowledge. “He was very obsessed with World War I as he continues to be, and I am, too, but not to the extent that he is.”
There’s tremendous film footage from World War I, Dargan said, because it was one of the first major conflicts after the invention of movie cameras, and cinema was becoming a big deal. “In some ways this war was perfectly timed for being captured on film,” he said.
When Fitzsimmons first came up with the idea for the show, he didn’t get far, so he tabled it, letting it “steep for awhile,” Dargan said.
“His premise, which I completely agree with, was that pretty much everything that’s happened in the last 100 years in terms of a geopolitical and socioeconomic policy between nations, both in Europe and United States, the Balkans, the Middle East, all that stage was really set with this war,” Dargan said.
‘Tragic and unnecessary’
Fitzsimmons, 43, who has an undergraduate degree in music performance, and an MBA in arts administration, both from UW-Madison, became interested in war history as a young adult, spending time studying the Civil War and then World War II, during which his grandfather was a prisoner of war.
He remembers being at a bookstore and seeing a shelf or two dedicated to each of those wars. Then, in between, there was a small part of a shelf with a couple of books dedicated to World War I. He thought it an ominous title for a conflict he knew so little about. So he randomly grabbed a book off the shelf and read it.
It made him realize that when he read books about the Civil War and World War II, they were often about military strategy and “what if” scenarios, like, “What if Hitler had attacked England in 1940?”
The conversations surrounding World War I tended to be more about, “So why did that happen? And why was it such a big deal the way it ended? And how did that lead into World War II?” Fitzsimmons said.
The first line of John Keegan’s famous book, “The First World War,” calls the war “a tragic and unnecessary conflict.”
World War II, noted Fitzsimmons, was a product of that tragic and unnecessary war.
“So it just kind of begs the chicken-and-egg question of what’s really being accomplished here and what does peace really look like?”