Knickerbocker Holiday

01/26/2011 06:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Years afterward, Lotte Lenya recalled that when she and her husband, Kurt Weill, sailed into New York harbor in 1935, two years after fleeing Nazi Germany, the people around them on the boat commented on how exotic everything seemed. But as they passed -- let's call it by its full name -- the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, she and Kurt felt they were coming home.

How easily Weill adapted to his new circumstances is apparent in the musical he wrote three years later, the 1938 Knickerbocker Holiday, which is being given a gorgeous concert revival by the Collegiate Chorale and a distinguished group of soloists at Alice Tully Hall. (The last performance is at 8 p.m. tonight, Wednesday.)

Like most pre-Oklahoma! musicals, the book, by Maxwell Anderson, doesn't blend effortlessly with the score. Anderson, as ambitious in his own way as Weill, was interested in verse drama. The first New York Film Critics Circle Award for best play went to Winterset, a play about the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Alas he is now best remembered as the author of The Bad Seed, a '50s melodrama about a murderous child -- quite effective but not what someone who cared about American poetry would want to be known for.

By chance I saw a concert revival of Knickerbocker Holiday two years ago at the York Theater. Anderson's book was allowed to go on at greater length -- the audience was astonished by its tough anti-New Deal humor, its assertion of the American independent spirit. A little of the humor has been retained. There was a big laugh for the line, "Democracy is when you're governed by amateurs."

Here the book has been substantially shortened because the emphasis is on musical values -- the splendid choral writing and the rich orchestrations, elegantly performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under James Bagwell.

The only reason most people know "Knickerbocker Holiday" is because it has one of the greatest songs in American musical theater history. Let's amend that and say one of the greatest songs ever written. In "September Song," an old man tries to woo a young woman reminding her that his time is limited. Both the words and the music are incredibly haunting.

It also has "It Never Was You," a love song that amply demonstrates Anderson's lyric-writing skill, and "How Can You Tell An American?", which has a jaunty elegance -- both verbal and musical -- worthy of the Gershwins. Yes, a lot of the comic songs, though clever, are not first rate but the score as a whole, especially when done with the panache it is here, emerges quite impressively.

And it shows Weill, who wrote symphonic music in Europe as well as the abrasive scores with Bertolt Brecht, Threepenny Opera and Mahagonny, adapting to the musical idioms of his adopted country. That it has the aforementioned standards shows how well he understood his new surroundings.

The plot is based on Washington Irving's 1809 Knickerbocker History of New York and concerns the arrival of its Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant. He immediately wants to marry the beautiful young daughter of one of the local politicos, who, of course, wants to marry someone her own age. The twists that enable her to do so make for an amusing evening. In 1938 no one expected more.

Victor Garber plays Stuyvesant. He is suitably crusty but manages to be very moving when he tries to woo the young woman with "September Song." The young woman is Kelli O'Hara, who is at her most winning and her most vocally stunning in this role. Her duet of "It Never Was You" with Ben Davis was just magnificent. I know I should not say this but I do hope someone was there with a taperecorder last night. There is no cast recording of the complete score -- only a few songs with Walter Huston, the original Stuyvesant.

Davis plays the young upstart who challenges Stuyvesant and almost loses his life doing so. Whenever I see a good-looking, great-sounding baritone like this I lament that our musical theater no longer has any use for them -- one might chronicle the decline of American culture in the disappearance of roles that were once a mainstay in the musical theater. Brian Stokes Mitchell, Paulo Szot only come to our attention in revivals. The robust, heroic characters they play no longer get written. Ah, well, some other time.

David Garrison is marvelous as O'Hara's wily father, a group of great character actors play the comic alderrnen with brio, Christopher Fitzgerald is funny as Davis's sidekick and Bryce Pinkham hits just the right tone as Washington Irving.

In the orchestrations you hear vestiges of the smart-alecky sounds of the music Weill wrote for Brecht. But you also hear a new lyricism that seems much more American, a romanticism that will come to full flower a decade later in Lost of the Stars, (which City Center Encores! is presenting the first week in February). The choral writing is incredibly rich and magnificently sung by the Collegiate Chorale.

Weill only lived 50 years. It seems significant that when he died he was working on a musical based on the greatest American novel, Huckleberry Finn, also with Anderson. The fact they only completed a few songs is to sad to contemplate. But let's focus on the positive -- Knickerbocker Holiday is plenty cause for celebration.