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

By Amy Asch
21 Jan 2011

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."

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