Theater archives

Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson Cooked Some Great Burghers For Knickerbocker Holiday


The Dutch arrived here 400 years ago, and the last weekend in June, York Theatre Company commemorated the quadricentennial by presenting, in its minimally rehearsed Musicals in Mufti series, a concert staging of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s rarely performed 1938 musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. Mufti events aren’t open for review; below are some reflections the event provoked about Weill and Anderson’s work, a surprisingly up-to-date item that deserves a fuller performance.

Knickerbocker Holiday was Weill’s first “commercial” U.S. work. His one previous Broadway musical, Johnny Johnson (1936), had been produced by the Group Theatre, viewed in the theatrical mainstream as an oddball organization, somewhat to the left of the usual money-making racket. A sprawling piece, heavily influenced by European models, Johnny Johnson‘s awkward, slapdash lyrics bore painful witness to author Paul Green’s inexperience with musical theater.

Knickerbocker Holiday was a far more prestigious matter. Its producers were leading Broadway lights—a newly founded consortium of commercially successful dramatists who had baptized themselves the Playwrights Company, banding together to escape the tyrannical whims of penny-conscious producers and egomaniacal stars. They duly learned that they had to curb their own budget-breaking propensities, and did so well enough to stay in business for over two decades. Their roster reads like an anthology of American drama between the wars: S.N. Behrman, Sidney Howard, Elmer Rice, Robert E. Sherwood, and Knickerbocker Holiday‘s librettist, Anderson. Weill himself would shortly become the organization’s only composer member, and would collaborate on projects generated by all the others except Sherwood; he ultimately transformed Rice’s Street Scene into the “Broadway opera” that would cap his American career.

Aesthetically, he and Anderson made an improbable team. For all his idealism and earnestness of outlook, Weill was a modern. As one of Germany’s rising young composers, he had sidestepped the established forms in which classical music was purveyed—as well as the fashionably complex, polytonal idiom he initially practiced—to write music with frank popular appeal, bringing his sensibility to bear on slangy contemporary texts, for situations well outside the standard classical venues. Weill’s principal German collaborators, Georg Kaiser and Bertolt Brecht, were both innovative poet-playwrights celebrated for not hewing to the established rules.

Anderson, in comparison, seemed almost a figure from an earlier era, though younger than Kaiser and only a decade older than Brecht. A college English teacher and newspaperman, he had only been bitten by the theater bug in his mid-thirties. Of his first plays, the successes were raffish, conventionally naturalistic comedies; the flops tended to be historical romances of a kind popular before World War I. The latter frequently featured the sub-Shakespearean blank verse beloved of 19th-century barnstormers. Anderson was no modernist; even his contemporary gangsters and anarchists often spouted standard iambics.

Yet when not lured by such ponderous poeticizing, Anderson could display a sparkish, snarky spirit that had a fair amount in common with the attitude of Weill and the writers he admired. Even Brecht might have been tickled at the thought of an American idealist who could name a comedy about Congressional corruption Both Your Houses. (One of several Anderson plays worth reviving, it won the Pulitzer in 1933.)

Weill responded to Anderson’s cynical streak in part because, surprisingly, events had moved him to explore more light-hearted modes of satire. As the world economy stagnated, and Nazism pushed Europe toward war, his impulse was to create for the 1930s the kind of sardonic musical entertainment, gentle-hearted but savage-tongued, that Jacques Offenbach and his librettists had invented a century earlier, when Second Empire France stagnated spiritually and Germany rattled bayonets. Weill had put much effort into an unwieldy work in this genre, Der Kuhhandel, only to see it fold quickly in London as A Kingdom for a Cow. With Knickerbocker Holiday, Weill found the means to Americanize his Offenbachian vision. Presumably, Anderson, familiar with Washington Irving’s satirical history of Dutch New York as told by the imaginary gossip “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” had the idea; to Weill it must have seemed his own notion handed back to him as an American blue-plate special.

Portraying Irving himself as an interruptive, history-rewriting narrator, Anderson invented a fizzy, cartoon-like text with a free-spirited flair unusual in his work. He paints the Dutch colony as the site of a power struggle between the stuffy, hypocritical burghers, whose quasi-democratic consensus is incompetent in its corruption, and their charismatic but tyrannical new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, whose equally corrupt one-man rule displays a far more lethal efficiency. Trapped between them is the clever young ne’er-do-well Brom Broeck, a born rebel, who loves the same burgher’s daughter being courted by Stuyvesant. For Anderson, Brom’s innate resentment at being told what to do is Americans’ key quality.

From this angle, Anderson can ridicule both the regulatory interferences of FDR’s New Deal (in lines that sound hilariously like Geithner explaining the bank bailout) and the European dictators’ pose of fulfilling the people’s will (in electoral maneuvers that seem straight off the news feed from Iran). His song lyrics, alas, lean on 19th-century archaisms, but here, Weill supplies the fizz, creating eccentrically shaped numbers that mix American blue notes and showbiz “breaks” with the mock-pompous marches, elegiac 12/8 ballads, and plink-plink waltzes of opéra bouffe at its giddiest.

Weill let Anderson get away with one unwise maneuver: This New Amsterdam’s stuffy burghers speak, and sing, in the “Dutch comedy” accents of 1890s vaudeville, still audible on 1930s radio shows. Trust me, a little of Anderson’s “Ve vouldn’t goink to do it” goes a long vey. But this is a small flaw. Martin Vidnovic, carrying off Stuyvesant’s role with immense panache at the York concert, demonstrated that, with careful handling, even the script’s double-Dutch can be made playable. And when Weill’s extended numbers are in full swing, the piece works as if fulfilling his dream: Teasingly foolish, it allows you a temporary laughing-gas escape from the woes of our world without ever letting you lose sight of them for one minute. A recording of the York performance is rumored; I’m ready to hear it again.