Some musicals become identified with a single hit song from their scores. The downside of that is that such fame or notoriety can keep us from discovering the pleasures of the rest of the score.
Certainly, that is the case with Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1936 Knickerbocker Holiday, a satire that had a beautiful score with sharp lyrics featuring love songs, comic songs and set pieces, but which is remembered almost exclusively for one song – “September Song.” You know “September Song” – “Oh, it’s a long long while from May to December / But the days grow short when you reach September.”
The new recording of a concert presentation of the full score with an abbreviated summary of the book revives the rest of the piece and is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the score for its own sake.
It is also an excellent example of the unique output Weill, a man who combined the essence of the avant garde of European concert music of the early twentieth century, the remnants of the rapidly disappearing genre of romantic operetta and the fascination of then-contemporary American musicals with jazz as an element in pop songs.
Kurt Weill was well known before the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich made it advisable for him and his wife, Lotte Lenya, to leave their native Germany. He’d already composed “Die Dreigoschenoper” with playwright Bertold Brecht. It was well regarded in Europe but didn’t become a major hit in American until after his death in 1950. An off-broadway revival with the translated title of “The Threepenny Opera” broke through and ran over 2,600 performances.
Weill arrived in New York in 1935 with a reputation for serious works of both concert and theater music. His first American musical was an anti-war piece Johnny Johnson – a title that was chosen because more U.S. soldiers by that name were listed on casualty lists than any other.
Don’t be alarmed if you don’t recognize that show. It only ran for two months in 1936 and a revival in 1971 closed the night it opened.
Weill had more success with a musical spectacle called The Eternal Road in 1937. Then he teamed with Maxwell Anderson, author of What Price Glory, Elizabeth the Queen and Mary Queen of Scotts for what was Anderson’s first musical.
This satirical musical finds Washington Irving writing his classic comic look at the history of New Amsterdam (“from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty”) with Peter Stuyvesant misusing his powers as Governor to force an arranged marriage to a young lady who happens to be in love with her own young man.
The young man has problems with the law, in part because of Stuyvesant’s maneuverings, but also because he simply can’t abide taking orders. That makes him typically American, in the viewpoint of the playwright. Indeed, he has the young man say “Maybe I was the first American. The beginning of a national type. A person with a really fantastic and inexcusable aversion to taking orders coupled with a complete abhorrence for governmental corruption, and an utter incapacity to do anything about it.”
Somehow, the story and the lyrics to such numbers as “How Can You Tell An American” and “Our Ancient Liberties” resound with contemporary themes in the days of The Tea Party and showdowns over debt limits. It is an inconsistent score. The first song mentioned above is kind of a kick. The second is kind of a bore.
When the score is at its best, however, it is great fun. The big numbers, which were obviously hoped-for hits, include the rousing “There’s Nowhere To Go But Up.” It offers a theme in its major section melody that repeats in various modulations so many times in Act I that it drills itself into your consciousness. The reprise in Act II feels like the return of an old friend and must have had audiences after the intermission in 1937 asking themselves “Haven’t I heard this song before?”
The same is true of the love song between the young couple that features the minor key resolution to its main melody that is a great example of Weill’s voice, “It Never Was You.” It is a precursor to later Weill lovelies like “My Ship” from and has some of the haunting features of “Speak Low” that Mary Martin introduced in his “One Touch of Venus.”
The comedy numbers sparkle with both Anderson’s wit and Weill’s lilt. There’s a bounce in the rhythm as the young lady who has just been ordered to marry an old man with a peg leg sings “Whatever are old people thinking of – when arranging a marriage? / They think about silver, they think about gold / and how much your kisses will bring when sold” while her true love sings “Whatever are old people thinking of – when arranging a wedding? / They think about where you will sleep, not with whom / and business advantages with the groom.” Through it all, however, the old men are singing “and young people think about love – ha ha.”
There is a pair of comedy numbers that sound as if they could have come from the pens of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart for The Boys from Syracuse which was a season-long hit the next year but with a slightly less inventive use of jazzy tempos.
And, of course, there is “September Song” which was the big hit. It was sung in the original by then-mega-star of stage and screen, Walter Huston, in his first Broadway musical. He’d been in ten plays on Broadway including Dodsworth, and he also starred in the film version, earning an Oscar nomination the same year he was doing this show in New York.
In this recording, the role of Stuyvesant is given to Victor Garber who does a fine job of acting the song as a scene. This is altogether fitting and proper as the song was written, not as a love song but as a seduction scene, one where the seduction is emotional and even plays on the romantic notions of the seductee (the young woman played/sung here by Kelli O’Hara) by the much older (and to her repulsive) governor.
The recording was made in New York in January of this year during the concert by the Collegiate Chorale with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Bagwell. The adaptation of the original script for a concert presentation was done by Edward Barnes and Ted Sperling who also directed the concert. The concert featured a sound design by the veteran sound designer who has a reputation for respecting the original sound of a piece, Scott Lehrer. Lehrer also edited and mixed the recording which may explain why the CD sounds like a well amplified live recording in a big hall instead of a close miked studio job. The balance with the orchestra of 26 playing the original orchestrations by Kurt Weill, who was one of the few Broadway musical composers who orchestrated his own pieces, the 59-voice chorale and the 13-member cast is superb.
In addition to Garber and O’Hara, the cast included familiar names such as David Garrison, Brad Oscar, Brooks Ashmanskas and Christopher Fitzgerald.