A Long, Long "Weill": Knickerbocker Holiday Gets a Starry NYC Revival

Special Features   A Long, Long "Weill": Knickerbocker Holiday Gets a Starry NYC Revival
 
The little-known Broadway musical that gave the world "September Song" resurfaces in a starry Manhattan concert Jan. 25-26. We explain Knickerbocker Holiday.

Walter Huston, Kurt Weill (at piano), Jeanne Madden and Maxwell Anderson in rehearsal
Courtesy of the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York.

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It's been a long, long while since New Yorkers have heard the full orchestration of Knickerbocker Holiday, the 1938 Kurt Weill–Maxwell Anderson musical that includes "September Song."

That will be remedied on Jan. 25-26 with a star-studded concert presented by The Collegiate Chorale at Alice Tully Hall. Tony Award winner Ted Sperling directs a cast of Broadway veterans including Kelli O'Hara, Victor Garber, Christopher Fitzgerald, Ben Davis, Bryce Pinkham and David Garrison. James Bagwell conducts the American Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of 65. The full score will be performed, but the book has been trimmed for what Sperling calls a "fleet on its feet" entertainment. The presentation will be recorded live by Sh-k-boom/Ghostlight Records.

So what is Knickerbocker Holiday? Musical theatre cognoscenti may recognize the title, but few can explain the nature of the show. A basketball musical about the New York Knicks? A biography of the newspaper columnist Cholly Knickerbocker? In fact, this musical comedy–operetta hybrid is based on a spoof history of Dutch-era New York published in 1809 by aspiring writer Washington Irving, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. The book was so successful that "Knickerbocker" became a synonym for "New Yorker." (The "Headless Horseman" and "Rip Van Winkle" stories for which Irving is best remembered today were written later in a long literary career.)

Richard Kollmar and Jeanne Madden in the original production of Knickerbocker Holiday
photo by Jerome Robinson. Courtesy of the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York.

Threepenny Opera composer Kurt Weill and Pulitzer Prize –winning playwright Maxwell Anderson (High Tor, Winterset) had met in New York in 1936 through mutual friends in The Group Theatre. Weill actually preferred to work with playwrights rather than musical-theatre or operetta librettists. And Anderson, who had used blank verse in some of his plays, liked the idea of writing lyrics. After discussing a few possibilities, they settled on this comic subject matter, which offered room for political satire. Actor Walter Huston was cast as Peter Stuyvesant, Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, and audiences were quite curious to find out whether he could sing and what costuming magic would be used for Stuyvesant's famous wooden leg.

The original Broadway production, directed by Joshua Logan, opened Oct. 19, 1938, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; it transferred to the 46th Street Theatre mid-run and closed in March 1939 after 168 performances.

Conductor Bagwell calls the show an undiscovered gem. "If you're interested in really understanding the development of Kurt Weill's style and capturing the musical theatre style of the late 1930s, then you should come and hear this piece," he told Playbill.com. "And even if you're not interested in the history, it's a wonderful charming work and it needs to be heard."

Sperling — who conducted Collegiate Chorale's 2009 concert of the Weill–Ira Gershwin musical The Firebrand of Florence and directed the Weill–Gershwin Lady in the Dark at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia in 2001 — adds, "This show has never had a good recording. We're doing it with Weill's original orchestrations and with this great cast. I think it's an important addition to the canon."

Walter Huston, as Peter Stuyvesant, in a chorus line of Dutch maidens
photo by Lucas-Pritchard. Courtesy of the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York.

Bryce Pinkham (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) plays the young Washington Irving as he begins his book about the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. As the story unfolds, Irving often steps in to comment on the action or encourage the characters to behave better for posterity.

It is 1647. A jovially corrupt group of Councilors await the arrival of governor Peter Stuyvesant (multiple Tony Award nominee Victor Garber). The council is led by Tienhoven (David Garrison, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine), whose daughter Tina (multiple Tony Award nominee Kelli O'Hara) loves Brom Broek. Ben Davis (Les Miserables, La Boheme, Kenneth Branagh's "The Magic Flute") plays Brom, a commoner who is constitutionally incapable of taking orders, and thus a true American. Trouble arises when Brom challenges the council and then the new Governor. Stuyvesant initially appears to be cleaning house, but it becomes clear he is merely consolidating power in his own hands. He takes a romantic interest in the much younger Tina, expressed in "September Song." "The Bachelor's Song," dropped from the original production, has been restored for this concert to expand the role of Brom's comic sidekick Tenpin (Tony nominee Christopher Fitzgerald, Finian's Rainbow).

Maxwell Anderson had used The Mikado as a template for his first-ever libretto, and audiences may catch a hint of Gilbert & Sullivan style in the first act finale "All Hail the Political Honeymoon."

Sperling notes, "It's quite early in the history of the book musical. It predates Oklahoma!, which is everybody's benchmark for the integrated musical. It is really well thought through, with songs that advance the plot or illuminate moments. I think it's a pretty forward-thinking piece for its time."

Anderson wanted Stuyvesant's attitude to mirror power grabbers of the '30s — particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who attempted to reorganize the Supreme Court in 1937. We have no record of Weill's thoughts on the matter, but he was a refugee from Hitler's Germany and may have felt that a warning against Roosevelt was needed less than one against Hitler and Mussolini. Audiences in 1938-39 would have recognized the words "Strength through Joy," sung in the first-act finale, as the name of a Nazi initiative. Director Sperling comments, "It comes up a lot that the [show's] politics are confusing. It seems very straightforward to me. The message can apply to so many different regimes or governments. And it certainly has a lot of resonance today." There is still corruption in high places and people continue to object to "the government telling them what to do or how to spend their money. That's very much present in this piece." As originally written, the role of Peter Stuyvesant was entirely a bad guy. But in rehearsals, actor Walter Huston's personal charm — and the addition of "September Song" — lightened the mood. Sperling noted, "With Victor Garber, we're in very good hands."

Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater, is located at 1941 Broadway (on 65th St between Broadway & Amsterdam). Single tickets can be purchased by calling The Collegiate Chorale at (646) 202-9623 or by visiting www.collegiatechorale.org

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Knickerbocker Holiday was last seen in New York in June 2009, one of the York Theatre's chamber-scale "Musicals in Mufti."

A 1944 movie version starring Nelson Eddy as Brom and Charles Coburn as Stuyvesant dropped most of the Weill-Anderson songs in favor of new material written by Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne and others. The best recording to date has been AEI's release of a one-hour radio adaptation of the show performed by Walter Huston and members of the Theatre Guild of the Air in December 1945. Knickerbocker Holiday is licensed by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.

Lost in the Stars, Weill and Anderson's second collaboration, also rarely revived, will be mounted by Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert Feb. 3-6 at New York City Center. A free panel discussion of Weill and Anderson's work will be held at the CUNY Graduate Center on Feb. 4 at 5 PM; speakers include Kim H. Kowalke and Elmar Juchem of the Kurt Weill Foundation.

(Amy Asch is the assistant editor of the Playbill Broadway Yearbook series, and the editor/compiler of "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" [Knopf, 2008]. Write to her at aasch@playbill.com.)

Washington Irving (Ray Middleton, at right) tries to persuade Stuyvesant (Walter Huston) to spare his political enemies in the final scene. Brom Broek (Richard Kollmar) is on the gallows.
Washington Irving (Ray Middleton, at right) tries to persuade Stuyvesant (Walter Huston) to spare his political enemies in the final scene. Brom Broek (Richard Kollmar) is on the gallows. Photo by Lucas-Pritchard. Courtesy of the Weill-Lenya Research Center, Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York.
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