Welcome to a new Musical Theatre Monday! Today, we’re continuing our series of alphabetically ordered posts on forgotten musicals from the ’10s – ’40s. Over the next 25 weeks (note that I will not be doing a post for the letter X), I’ll be covering a different forgotten musical. The only criteria, it has to begin with that specific letter of the alphabet. A was for Are You With It? (1945). B was for Best Foot Forward (1941). C was for The Cat And The Fiddle (1931). D was for Du Barry Was A Lady (1939). E was for Ever Green (1930). F was for Funny Face (1927). G was for Great Day! (1929). H was for Hot-Cha! (1932). I was for Irene (1919). J was for Jumbo (1935). K is for…
K. Knickerbocker Holiday (10/19/38 – 03/11/39)
Another political allegory channeled through musical theatre, this socially charged piece by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson aimed it sites on exposing both the constant corruption that infringes upon democracy and the necessity of this government when juxtaposed against dictatorships. Loosely using Washington Irving’s A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker, Anderson’s book pokes fun (though not so jovially, perhaps) at the Roosevelt administration, and with the likable Walter Huston as the comic dictator and supposed antagonist, many audiences felt conflicted by the show’s message. So despite the wonderful score, Knickerbocker Holiday never became a hit. But several of its songs did…
First, the plot: The show is narrated by Washington Irving in 1809, who brings us back to Manhattan in 1647, where the town is anxiously awaiting their new Dutch Governor. Brom Broeck, our hero — decidedly American in his inability to take orders — has fallen in love with Tina, the daughter of the corrupt Town Council’s head, Tienhoven, who’s been selling firearms to the Indians. (Also on the council are people like Van Cortlandt, Vanderbilt, and Roosevelt.) When Brom confronts Tienhoven about his criminal activities, the council orders him to hang. Fortunately, thanks to Brom’s resourcefulness and the sudden arrival of the Governor, Peter Stuyvesant, Brom is pardoned. But Stuyvesant quickly reforms the government into a tyranny, and decides to take Tina as his wife. Brom is thrown in jail for his resistance as the first act ends.
The second act begins in Brom’s jail cell, where Tina visits him to commiserate about her impending nuptials to Stuyvesant. As the colony goes to war with the Indians, Tina and Stuyvesant’s ceremony is interrupted by the burning of the jail. As the council members retreat, Stuyvesant, Brom, and his friend Tenpin fight off the Indians. When the battle has ended, Brom alerts the crowd that he saw Stuyvesant also selling firearms to the Indians, and is ordered to hang. But the crowd mutinies and the council votes against the hanging. As Stuyvesant prepares to gun the crowd down, Washington Irving intervenes and tells Stuyvesant to think about the image he’s leaving for posterity. Stuyvesant has a change of art, pardons Brom, allows him to marry Tina, and decides that maybe he may also make a good American — he can’t take orders either.
Surprisingly, the musical was adapted for the screen in 1944, but of course, only four of the original songs were kept, and the politics were unquestionably watered down. (This was also the case with a 1950 TV production.) Walter Huston and several members of the original cast performed abbreviated cuts of the show on the radio in 1938 and 1945. These were compiled on AEI release here, giving the best representation of an Original Cast recording. After a few small New York revivals in the ’70s, it wasn’t until this past decade that Knickerbocker Holiday was seen again in a major venue: Alice Tully Hall. This two-performance concert from 2011 was recorded and released on CD. It is recommended.
I mentioned earlier in this post that several of the songs did become hits. The most famous is “September Song,” which Huston’s character sings to his young beloved (and winning over the hearts of the audience, thus weakening our perception of him as an antagonist). I think allowing his character to show this much complexity is extraordinary, and the song itself — maybe my favorite Weill piece. Above is Huston’s live radio rendition from the AEI release.
Another of the score’s hits is Brom and Tina’s first duet, “It Never Was You.” (Judy Garland does a great solo rendition in the 1963 film, I Could Go On Singing.) Again, this — also from the AEI album — may be my favorite (or second favorite) Weill piece.
Brom and Tina got two more duets of which I’m fond. The first, heard above, is “Will You Remember Me?” which they sing as he is about to be hanged. The second, heard below, is “We Are Cut In Twain,” sung by the pair in the jailhouse. Both recordings are by Ben Davis and Kelli O’Hara from the 2011 Concert Recording.
The character defining song from Brom and his allies, “How Can You Tell An American?” is some of Anderson’s best work. This rendition is also from the 2011 Concert Cast Recording.
There are so many great numbers from the score; I wish I could share them all. But let’s end today’s post with a rare audio recording of “There’s Nowhere To Go But Up” from the 1950 TV Production starring John Raitt.
Come back next Monday for L! And tune in tomorrow for more MTM!