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Knickerbocker Holiday: An Appreciation

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by Mark N. Grant

Kurt Weill earned his living entirely from his music, and he almost always had more than one project at a time in development, because in show business, not every deal closes. In early 1938, three projects in which he had already invested a lot of time and work were going nowhere. “The Opera from Mannheim” (lyrics by Yip Harburg, book by Sam and Bella Spewack, to be produced by Max Gordon) fizzled, and a combination of circumstances forced Weill to abandon The Common Glory, a collaboration with Paul Green (Green later completed it and it was produced regionally in 1947). A musical version of Davy Crockett for the Federal Theatre failed to find Broadway backing, even though actor Burgess Meredith had initiated the project and was helping to produce it.

Burgess Meredith had had a small role in the short-lived 1933 Broadway production of Threepenny Opera, auditioned unsuccessfully for Johnny Johnson, and become a friend of Weill’s. Even after two misfires, Meredith told playwright Maxwell Anderson he’d jump at the chance to appear in any musical the two wrote together. The young actor had been catapulted to stardom performing in Anderson’s plays WintersetHigh Tor, and The Star Wagon, and Anderson took him under his wing, even helping him find property in rustic Rockland County near Anderson’s home. Anderson and Weill had already met; the two men had been tossing around ideas for collaboration for a couple of years. For High Tor (1936), Anderson, borrowing a page from The Flying Dutchman, had created a subplot for ghosts of shipwrecked seventeenth-century Dutch sailors. Still mining Dutch colonial history, Anderson persuaded Weill to musicalize Washington Irving’s 1809 History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker about Peter Stuyvesant. He even recycled High Tor‘s jokes about braining people with bowling balls into what became Knickerbocker Holiday.

At that time Maxwell Anderson was, after O’Neill, the most prestigious dramatist on Broadway. In fact, he was produced more frequently than O’Neill: he had twelve plays on Broadway in the 1930s alone. He was best known for dramas written mostly in neo-Shakespearean blank verse (though Anderson’s scansion is irregular); he even versified Winterset, a treatment of the Sacco and Vanzetti story. With only the World’s Fair commission Railroads on Parade as an active project in 1938, Weill could hardly refuse to work with Broadway’s top dramatist. But something more happened: the two men developed a warm friendship unusual for both, Weill’s closest friendship with any of his collaborators in America. In his published preface to Knickerbocker Holiday, Anderson adoringly calls Weill’s work “the best score in the history of our theatre.” In the summer of 1938 Weill and Lenya rented a house outside Suffern, near Anderson’s home, and they stayed in Rockland for the rest of Weill’s life, joining an exurban community of artists that included Meredith, Anderson, Milton Caniff, Henry Varnum Poor, Helen Hayes, Alan Jay Lerner, and others.

Anderson and Weill envisioned Knickerbocker Holiday as an enlightened entertainment, a Mikado-like allegory about absolute political power. But whereas Weill’s bête noire à clef was Hitler, Anderson made Stuyvesant into a lampoon of President Franklin Roosevelt–who he believed had grasped too much power–much sharper than Kaufman and Hart’s FDR portrait in I’d Rather Be Right the previous year. The deus ex machina finale of Knickerbocker Holiday–Washington Irving stepping in to warn Governor Stuyvesant that history will view him poorly if he massacres his opposition–alludes to an actual event: when FDR attempted (unsuccessfully) to sponsor a bill to pack the Supreme Court, one of his leading New Deal allies, Senator Joseph O’Mahoney, publicly upbraided him, “Mr. President, think what posterity will say about your court bill!” (FDR actually attended a pre-Broadway Washington tryout of Knickerbocker and laughed throughout.) When Anderson’s colleagues in the Playwrights’ Company, which produced the show, read an early draft, they pressed Anderson to delete some of the more barbed references to the New Deal. He complied, but not totally, and the role of Stuyvesant continued to grow. Burgess Meredith, who had expected his character, Brom Broeck, to be the lead, backed out of the show, severely damaging his friendship with Anderson (director Guthrie McClintic also opted out, replaced by Joshua Logan). Meanwhile, to appeal to the proverbial “tired businessman,” Anderson, highflown verse dramatist, wrote the Dutch councilmen’s dialogue in grotesque vaudeville-German accents (though with no particular logic, he wrote Stuyvesant’s part in standard English). Such atypical concessions to popular taste, and the fact that Anderson wanted to write a musical at all, indicate that part of his aim was simply to make more money than he thought he would with yet another straight play.

As a result Knickerbocker Holiday is a peculiar mixture of highbrow and lowbrow; in it one can hear Weill experimenting with all-American pop, cheek-by-jowl with old-world operetta styles. Unlike typical 1930s Broadway scene change music based on other tunes from the show, Weill’s is original, employing chromatic chord sequences not used in other numbers. But in the songs “How Can You Tell an American” and “The Scars” he all but emulates up-tempo Irving Berlin, and in the dance “The Algonquins from Harlem” he even takes a stab at jazz–while “We Are Cut in Twain” recalls the recent hit “Begin the Beguine,” and “It Never Was You” seems consciously written for the hit parade. Yet at the same time “Our Ancient Liberties” sounds like a mock-Viennese waltz, “Sitting in Jail” is a habanera reminiscence of “Captain Valentine’s Tango” from Johnny Johnson, and “May and January” is almost a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Weill’s choral writing is operatically elaborate: “Young People Think about Love” gives a coloratura part to the female lead over a five-part vocal texture; the 11 o’clock number “No We Vouldn’t Gonto Do It” builds excitement with canonic imitation in the choir voices, then modulates toward a climax in block chorale style. But regardless of the musical treatment, many of the songs make sharp political points: even “Nowhere To Go But Up” is a crypto-paean to unemployed workers in the Depression.

Another thread running through the show is a youth-versus-age motif–“Young People Think About Love,” “We Are Cut in Twain,” “May and January,” and of course “September Song.” To get Walter Huston to agree to play Stuyvesant, Weill and Anderson had to come up with a romantic ballad for him. The tune was not new; Weill recycled six bars from his 1935 operetta Der Kuhhandel, where they had attracted little notice as a brief introduction to an arietta. Weill’s biographer Ronald Sanders noted that the lyric, “for it’s a long, long while” is a pun on the German “Langeweile” and a play on Kurt’s name (and stature–he was a “short (“kurz”) Weill”). The song soon became Weill’s first American hit, and over the years it was covered by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Maurice Chevalier, Liberace, Jimmy Durante, James Brown, Lou Reed, and countless other well-known artists. (So Anderson did make his money, more from one song than from the whole show.) It is instructive, and revelatory, to listen to Weill’s original 1938 orchestration after hearing so many glossy pop versions of the tune over the years. The composer underlined the oscillating Cm6-C6 harmony with an ostinato in the rhythm section that lays bare the song’s strong reminiscence of “Surabaya Johnny” and the “Moritat,” masked in most commercial arrangements. The texture is strikingly spare, with a minimum of licks and fills, ghostly pianissimo backbeats in the guitar and piano, and the feeling of a closely danced foxtrot.

Of the original cast, only Ray Middleton (Washington Irving) went on to bigger roles in the theater (Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun). Female lead Jeanne Madden (Tina) faded from sight after the show, her only Broadway appearance. Richard Kollmar (Brom Broeck) became a producer and radio personality in the 1940s. Perhaps the hidden star of the production was costume designer Frank Bevan, particularly for the way he rigged Huston’s garments to make him appear peg-legged. So widespread was the wonderment at Huston’s one-legged dancing in a chorus line that the actor got sick of talking to the press about it. Bevan’s cloaks and breeches for Stuyvesant were so voluminous that “Mr. Huston could carry a keg of beer in the seat of his pants without anyone being conscious of the fact,” wrote one commentator.

The show went on a road tour after Broadway. The 1944 film version with Nelson Eddy scrapped most of Weill’s music and Anderson’s book. The Theatre Guild of the Air broadcast a radio version with Huston reprising his role on December 30, 1945. This version so abridges the piece that it does not do the score justice; it is further distorted by the sugary orchestrations of Harold Levey (1894-1967), a Victor Herbert protegé. ABC’s Pulitzer Play Playhouse broadcast a live television version November 17, 1950, also truncated, with Dennis King, John Raitt, and Doretta Morrow.

While Anderson’s book is uneven (the distasteful attempts at comedy in the hanging scenes give new meaning to “gallows humor”), at his poetic best he is our theater’s most underappreciated lyricist. And Weill’s score, largely unheard in recent years, is long overdue for reappraisal. It is the prime missing link in the evolution of his style from Europe to Broadway.

Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).

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