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The Eternal Theatrical Composer

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center Complex
01/25/2011 -  & January 26, 2011
Kurt Weill: Knickerbocker Holiday
Victor Garber (Governor Peter Stuyvesant), Kelli O’Hara (Tina Garrison), Ben Davis (Brom Broek), David Garrison (Tienhoven), Christopher Fitzgerald (Tenpin), Bryce Pinkham (Washington Irving), Michael McCormick (Marshal Schermerhorn), Brao Oscar (Roosevelt), Steve Rosen (Dr, Peyster), Brooks Ashmanskas (Van Cortlandt), Jeff Blumenkrantz (De Vries), Marie Mascari, Heather Hill, Teresa Buchholz (Three Girls), Costas Tsourakis (Corlear)
The Collegiate Chorale, American Symphony Orchestra, James Bagwell (Conductor)
Ted Sperling (Director), Ted Sperling and Edward Barnes (Concert Script Adaptation), Frances Aronson (Lighting Designer), Scott Lehrer (Sound Designer), John Finen (Stage Manager)

Centre: V. Garber, B. Davis, K. O’Hara (© Erin Baiano)

I had forgotten how dazzling an iconoclastic musical could be. The production of Knickerbocker Holiday was only semi-staged, is not one of Kurt Weill’s best, and its anti-Roosevelt politics, boxed into an esoteric piece of fictional New York history is hardly a gripping subject.

But oh! This cast of Broadway stars–singers who know their opera as well as their 1930’s musical comedy riffs–with the American Symphony Orchestra, and all the saxes which Kurt Weill ever needed, and a streamlined script, preserving all 30-odd songs is, in the best sense of the word, a stunning event.

Maxwell Anderson’s pretensions to blank verse and high-falutin’ language was altered for this show, mainly because he wanted a vehicle to show Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a bad light. (Anderson would be called a pacifist libertarian today, always suspicious of governmental power.) Kurt Weill wasn’t against F.D.R.: Hitler was his enemy. But his composition transcended both political problems.

Weill never made the Berlin-to-Beverly Hills Diaspora of predominantly Jewish, left-wing German composers. He did fit the bill in all those ways, but Weill wasn’t ready to surrender his beliefs. Starting as an atonalist composer, then a brilliant collaborator of Bertolt Brecht, he needed the intellectual milieu of New York, not sunny California. And like most left-wingers of that time, he wasn’t ready to write for the unwashed masses. He needed the relatively elite audiences of Broadway.

Knickerbocker Holiday was his first success, though not his greatest. So much music is produced, so many ensemble pieces are created that it resembles Gilbert and Sullivan more than a Broadway musical. Add to that the political overlay (happily not updated in the Ted Sperling adaptation), and one would have questions about how such a production would come out.

K. O’Hara (© The Collegiate Chorale)

Frankly, it’s the cast and orchestra which does it. Kelli O’Hara and Ben Davis are not only Broadway stars, but can do opera. They might be the ingenue couple, but their duets–five? six?–were done with verve, with lovely voices altogether. Victor Garber has that most unenviable task of taking the original Walter Huston role of 1938. But Garber is a most accomplished actor, and his picture of Governor Peter Stuyvesant is broad without being cute.

(Originally and realistically, Stuyvesant was a vicious bigoted bully. But Walter Huston made him such a loveable person that the script was dutifully changed.)

Then we come to the one and only great song from the play, “September Song”. It’s been recorded by everybody from Liberace to Jimmy Durante, but Mr. Garber and conductor James Bagwell gave it that upbeat tempo–never for a moment bringing it down to mere sentimentality–that it works. The 1930’s simply didn’t have time for anything too maudlin.

Still, the main character, the deus ex machina, the Greek Chorus, and–like the savior in Weill’s Threepenny Opera– is Washington Irving who had written the original book in 1804 about 1670’s New York produced in 1938. Again, we have a man with a brilliant voice, Bryce Pinkham.

Back to Kurt Weill, though. In so many of these songs we hear the sounds of Berlin cabaret, of Mahoganny and Threepenny. In other songs, he tried to imitate Irving Berlin, and at other times, as in the repeated “How Can You Tell An American?”, a beautiful and actually evocative song about American independence.

I cannot stress how deeply the music makes the show. I am uncertain how much Messrs Sperling and Barnes cut from the script, and it does sometimes reek of set piece after set piece. But Kurt Weill was a composer of so many faces, so much innate talent, that it is all fascinating .

V. Garber, B. Ashmanskas, M. McCormick, B. Oscar,
J. Blumenkrantz (© Erin Baiano)

Virgil Thomson had it right. “Nothing Kurt Weill ever wrote was banal…he had the ability to handle musical theater with freedom. Nothing he ever touched was banal.”

Knickerbocker Holiday, happily, is being recorded, and with the voices here, that recording should and must become a classic. It is Kurt Weill with an ephemeral subject, but with music and musicians which deserves its own eternity.

Harry Rolnick



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