Walter Huston as Stuyvesant and Jeanne Madden as Tina Tienhoven in the Broadway premiere of
Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938
Broadway, 1938: This scene, just before the final resolution of the plot, shows an enraged Stuyvesant (Walter Huston) getting ready to kill most of the citizens of New Amsterdam, particularly gadfly Brom Broeck (center rear, on the gallows). Washington Irving (Ray Middleton, at right) intervenes to dissuade Stuyvesant by reminding him of posterity's harsh judgment of such a massacre. Stuyvesant relents and renounces dictatorship.
Walter Huston (Stuyvesant) and Jeanne Madden (Tina Tienhoven) with chorus; Broadway, 1938
Poster for the Broadway production
Weill at the piano with Walter Huston, Jeanne Madden, and Maxwell Anderson; 1938
MasterVoices concert version of
Knickerbocker Holiday with Victor Garber and Kelli O'Hara; Alice Tully Hall, 2011 | Photo: Erin Baiano
Kelli O'Hara and Ben Davis in the MasterVoices concert version of
Knickerbocker Holiday; Alice Tully Hall, 2011 | Photo: Erin Baiano
by Mark N. Grant
In 1809, Washington Irving hopes to create an enduring work that will augur a new American literature. He decides to write a history of the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam ().
As Irving looks on, the scene shifts to Manhattan, 1647. Dutch maidens swab the pier (), and the town council (), headed by Tienhoven, sights the ship carrying their new Governor, Peter Stuyvesant. To honor him and prove they are diligent public servants–though they admit to under-the-table dealings ()–the council members decide to hang a convict. But there are no prisoners; they have all escaped.
Now Irving decides on a commoner, Brom Broeck, as his hero. Brom hopes to marry Tina, Tienhoven’s daughter, but wants to be more respectable first (). He admits that he is incapable of taking orders, which means he can’t tolerate bosses or officials. He and Tina still love each other anyway (). The council enters, still seeking a victim. Brom accuses Tienhoven of selling brandy and firearms to the Indians–a hanging offense. Irving intervenes and tells Brom to disregard the facts so that he won’t have to report such disagreeable charges to his latter-day readers. But he and Brom agree that an inability to take orders combined with a hatred of corruption add up to a working definition of an American ().
The council votes to hang Brom. Tina protests as they tie him up (). Brom tricks the council into putting the noose around his belly, not his neck. They hoist him just as Stuyvesant makes his entrance. Impressed by Brom’s ingenuity, Stuyvesant pardons him. The governor promises democratic reform, which proves indistinguishable from tyranny (), but the crowd cheers. Stuyvesant confronts Tienhoven with his crimes, but notes that he will be useful when the government takes over the sale of contraband to the Indians (). Then Tienhoven announces that Tina will marry Stuyvesant. Tina objects furiously to the arranged marriage () and pleads for time. But Stuyvesant wants to marry the next day, since he is getting old and doesn’t have the luxury of waiting (), and he persuades her. Stuyvesant detects Brom’s resistance and throws him in jail, ordering the crowd to sing and rejoice ().
Observing Brom in his jail cell, Washington Irving notes the irony that the real crooks are all on the outside (). Tina comes to return Brom’s ring. Then Stuyvesant enters and tells Brom that he ought to write a jailhouse book, like Bunyan and Cervantes (). When Stuyvesant leaves, Tina tries to sneak into the cell past the jailer, but as Brom and the jailer engage in a tug of war over her, her skirts are ripped off. They resolve to escape together, but the jailer foils them. Tienhoven reminds Tina she must wed Stuyvesant; if she resists, Brom will be hanged. Tina and Brom lament their fate ().
Irving sets the next scene (“There’s Nowhere to Go But Up!” reprise), and the newly mustered army marches in (). Stuyvesant orders the council to reorganize the colony’s economy; for the first time the council members object to his tyrannical plans, but only after he exits (). The betrothal ceremony proceeds () as Stuyvesant makes Tina recite his list of rules for wives. He is not alarmed that Tina was seen without her skirt in Brom’s cell the previous night ().
Suddenly shots ring out: Brom and his friend Tenpin enter, fleeing the Indians who have burned down the jail (“The Algonquins from Harlem” dance). The council members retreat, but Stuyvesant and Brom stand and fight. Tenpin is felled by arrows (); Brom rescues Stuyvesant and together they drive away the Indians. Then Brom tells the crowd he witnessed Stuyvesant selling the Indians firearms. Tenpin recovers and corroborates Brom’s charge. An enraged Stuyvesant swears he will hang Brom, who tells the crowd that they were better off with the inefficient corruption of the council than with Stuyvesant’s efficient corruption. The council mutinies and refuses to proceed with the hanging ().
Stuyvesant is preparing to gun down the mutineers when Washington Irving intervenes. He advises Stuyvesant not to fire so he will not seem a ruthless tyrant to posterity. Stuyvesant has a change of heart; he pardons Brom and allows him to marry Tina. Then he allows that he may be an American, too, since he was never able to take orders, either (“How Can You Tell an American?” reprise).
Washington Irving Song
Entrance of the Council
There's Nowhere to Go But Up!
It Never Was You
How Can You Tell an American?
Will You Remember Me?
One Touch of Alchemy
The One Indispensable Man
Young People Think About Love
All Hail the Political Honeymoon
Ballad of the Robbers
Sitting in Jail
We Are Cut in Twain
Our Ancient Liberties
May and January
Dirge for a Soldier
No, Ve Vouldn't Gonto Do It
Washington Irving (baritone)
Brom Broeck (baritone)
Tina Tienhoven (soprano)
Peter Stuyvesant (character baritone)
Ensemble of councilors
General Poffenburgh (baritone)
Citizens of New Amsterdam, soldiers, Indians
Reed 1 (ob, cl, alto sax)
Reed 2 (cl, bass cl, alto sax)
Reed 3 (cl, ten. sax, bar. sax)
Timpani & percussion
Chappell Music Co./Hal Leonard
Ute & Volker Canaris
Knickerbocker Holiday (live recording). Collegiate Chorale. American Symphony Orchestra. James Bagwell, cond.
"Handsome and tuneful and eloquent. In 'September Song' and 'To Our Ancient Liberties,' Kurt Weill has written a couple of the best songs of the year."
New Yorker, 1938
"A beautiful score . . . and an air of refreshing fun-poking that most playgoers will associate with Gilbert and Sullivan . . . . A novel piece of quality craftsmanship . . . . One of the smoothest ribs of modern politics yet staged."
"Gay, vital, literate and different from any musical you've ever seen . . . . Some of the finest lyrics and music you'll hear this or any other year . . . . The marriage of Anderson's book and lyrics to Weill's music is a perfect mating."
Boston Evening American, 1938
"The satire, the irony, the sparkle and bite of [Anderson's] text contain an authority worthy of W.S. Gilbert. Admirably wedded to this libretto is Kurt Weill's graceful and original music, melodious and full of light-hearted zest."
Boston Globe, 1938
"Spirited, tuneful and pungent political satire, so skillfully embellished with pithy lines and lyrics and so handsomely melodized with a variegated musical score as to create the illusion of a completely new form in the theater . . . . An evening of sheer delight."
Washington Post, 1938
"Hilarious musical satire . . . . Anderson has written some of the most brilliant lyrics imaginable, Kurt Weill has set them to incredibly lovely music . . . . Not a dull moment."
Cleveland Press, 1939
"The beauty of 'September Song' and the quiet, warming way in which Mr. Huston tinkles out its wise and winning words are among the most delightful moments the Theater of all time has ever delivered. No entertainment in a blue theatrical moon has had such tantalizing tunes, for Mr. Weill's music is gay, stimulating and alive . . . [an] unforgettable score."
Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 1939
"The Weill music, rolling out like a colorful carpet, makes the evening."
New York Times, 1975
"Sophistication, wit and also heart . . . a beautiful score."
New York Times, 1977
"The astonishing thing about it is how topical it remains. Anderson's political kick gives Knickerbocker Holiday some topical tang; its enduring strength lies in Weill’s music."
Toronto Star, 2009
"A fascinating mixture of operetta choruses, peppy vaudeville turns, gorgeous Broadway ballads, and Germanic-flavored strains, all orchestrated brilliantly by the composer himself . . . . Persuasive evidence that Weill was and remains one of Broadway's most original, skilled, and artistically ambitious composers."
"The breezy score for Knickerbocker Holiday effervesces like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta."
New York Times, 2011
"Weill's work is vibrantly refreshing, an intriguing mix of his familiar Berlin style with his first explorations of the American musical. A pleasure to hear the score in all its musical splendor."
"Splendid choral writing and rich orchestrations . . . . Knickerbocker Holiday has one of the greatest songs in American musical theater history. Let's amend that and say one of the greatest songs ever written . . . 'September Song.'"