By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
“Harmony: A New Musical,” the Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman work is hardly a “new” musical, having simmered off the Broadway range for more than 26 years. The musical finally had its fateful opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on Nov. 13 and is currently enjoying a very good box office.
Many people are unfamiliar with the musical’s subject matter, the Comedian Harmonists, the six-part close harmony group that was the toast of Europe during the years between 1928 and 1934. That’s largely because their many popular films and best-selling recordings were destroyed by official Nazi decree when several members were found to be Jewish. Their non-Aryan bloodlines in violation of officially sanctioned music by the Third Reich, their entire repertoire and personae was wiped away from the world’s consciousness and memory.
Sussman had never heard of them nor was familiar with their collective vocal agility and comedic talents until he saw a moving documentary film on them at a screening at the Public Theater. As his writing partner recalls, he received an excited phone call from Sussman claiming that he had the most amazing story that begged to be turned into a musical. Manilow couldn’t understand exactly what he was talking about, but he intuitively knew he couldn’t say no. “I’m in!” he responded back to Sussman.
Thus began the journey of a musical that had its first iteration back in 1997 in La Jolla, California and tried in fits and starts to wind its way to Broadway including a well-received Off-Broadway run at the Museum of the Jewish Experience – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust last year. All of the six actors who portrayed the Comedian Harmonists in that production – Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey – returned along with veteran performer Chip Zien as Rabbi, an older representation of one of the surviving members. Five of the six young men in that group made their Broadway debuts with Harmony.
To underscore their backstory, Sussman as book writer and lyricist begins by emphasizing the six men’s remarkable and unbreakable relationship – their “Harmony” – in the very first song that introduces the sextet. Zien’s character of Rabbi, is the older version of the character played by Danny Kornfeld, and it is through the lens of his memory that we appreciate their close harmonies and their even closer support of one another in what were among the most discordant and fractious times of the 20th century.
Zien’s remarkable performance would be challenging for a man half his age, but he does play Rabbi with an almost youthful enthusiasm and it is critically important that he does. When he is not emoting on stage as Rabbi, the book calls upon his seemingly inexhaustible energy to also channel several other historical German personages such as physicist Albert Einstein, composer Richard Strauss and film director Sandor Frankenhauser. The veteran performer does not disappoint in what is certain to be regarded as his most defining role since the Baker in the original cast of Into the Woods.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (The Music Man), the cast is hardly ever seen standing still and in comic sequences like “How Can I Serve You Madam?” and Act II’s wild opener “We’re Going Loco,” the talented movement of the performers is also more than evident.
The two major female cast members are played by Sierra Boggess (The Little Mermaid) and Julie Benko (Funny Girl). Both play strong characters with Boggess as Mary opposite Young Rabbi and Benko as Ruth opposite Chopin (Blake Roman), respectively. Mary is a gentile who falls for a Jew and converts to Judaism prior to their wedding, while Ruth, who is Jewish, enjoys a troubled relationship with the group’s non-Jewish pianist and composer. Being both a Jewess and a Communist, Ruth is doubly marked by the Nazis.
In the moving song “This Is Our Time” Manilow and Sussman effectively examine various personal relationships against the backdrop of the dangerous times in which they lived. While Mary comments on the volatility of the world, she affirms hope as she and Young Rabbi express their love for each other. Bobby (Sean Bell) and Harry (Zal Owen) decide to pool their talents in order to market the Comedian Harmonists more effectively and they are soon joined by the remaining members of the group including Mary, all proclaiming “This Is Our Time.” Integrated at the very end is Ruth’s commitment to the other Bolsheviks and her solidarity with the workers, finally coming together with everyone on the final musical phrase and word “time!”
In Act II’s “Where You Go” the two women liken their struggle to that of the Biblical Ruth in which she emphasized her need to be a part of the Jewish people. “Where you go, I will go. Where you walk, I’m beside you. My love, where you are is where I want to be,” Mary begins the song, which ends as a duet, the rich melody permitting the two of them to harmonize “No journey can erase that place in both our hearts. Where you go, I will go. Where you lie, so will I. And I’ll stay till the day that we die.”
Earlier, in Act I, when Mary questions if they should proceed towards marriage, Young Rabbi answers her concerns with his own pronouncement that to do otherwise would be to harbor a lifetime of regret. “Every Single Day” is the answer to Mary’s anxiety and probably the song that most clearly sounds like a Barry Manilow popular tune. Kornfeld’s beautifully rendered tenor is especially endearing.
Following the wedding sequence, we return to Carnegie Hall in December of 1933, the setting for the opening of Act I. In the finale for the act, “Home,” Rabbi sings his lines as the group debates whether to stay in America or return to their native Germany. The rule for the group has been that any decision made among the members has to be unanimous. Ultimately, they elect to return, hoping that the Nazi threat will blow over much to the regret of Rabbi. The dramatic ending has the group embracing with Zien as Rabbi knowing the consequence of that decision and bellowing a defiant “No!” as the curtain falls.
Act II opens with the wildly imaginative dance sequence and song “We’re Goin’ Loco,” a number that allows the members of the Comedian Harmonists to interact with Allison Semmes as Josephine Baker and backing ensemble members. Set at Broadway’s “Ziegfeld Follies of 1934,” the song features spectacular dancing and costumes to boot.
When Rabbi crashes the party, it’s to remind us that destiny had other plans for the group than worldwide fame.
The collision of the popular Comedian Harmonists with the Nazis becomes ever more focused in Act II. Andrew O’Shanick has a prominent, but small role as a Standantentführer who is also a fan of the group. As it becomes known that at least two members of the ensemble are Jewish, the Nazis hold them up to greater and greater scrutiny.
Examples of the group’s musicality and comedic skills follow in “Hungarian Rhapsody #20,” in which they each emulate different instruments of an imagined Franz Liszt composition through their vocal wizardry. Steven Telsey as Lesh has the most fiery of the work’s passages, but they all do incredible work to bring the fictional piece to fruition. (Liszt only wrote 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, it is pointed out.) Of course, promoting Roma culture through the use of “gypsy” music would also mark the Comedian Harmonists for eventual superintendence by the Nazis.
At first, their success and Nazi friends in high places grant the group an exemption for them to continue to perform and stay together. During the song “In This World,” the Obersturmführer (Zak Edwards) informs everyone that the right of German citizenship is no longer extended to Jews. He instructs an adjutant to read a list of names who are wanted by the authorities. Erich (Eric Peters), the group member who is acknowledged as having a number of secrets, reveals another at this time as the group faces an uncertain future.
As the vice of the Third Reich tightens its grip about the Comedian Harmonists, their status moves from protected to at risk. The final song “Stars in the Night” is a tour de force for each individual member as they each have a spotlighted phrase and finally as a group as they describe hope and use the imagery of the stars as a metaphor for their time. “Look! Look how they tease, these stars in the night. The darker the night becomes, the brighter their light becomes,” they sing in unison. “Chill winds wail. The tempest brews. And clouds assail the sky. Through the veil, the stars refuse to die!”
Orchestrations by Doug Walter and musical arrangements by Manilow are lovingly rendered. As music director, John O’Neill also works with Manilow on the vocal arrangements for the group. Michael Aarons acts as the musical coordinator for the work.
Brilliant scenic designs are provided by Beowulf Boritt with Batwin-Robin Productions handling the media design. The lighting designs are deftly handled by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and the excellent sound designs are by Dan Moses Schreier.
While the trajectory to Broadway may have taken more than a quarter of a century to be realized, Harmony, like last year’s Leopoldstadt serves as a reminder to everyone that Jews are constantly at risk in a world where antisemitism is allowed to exist unchecked. This show’s hauntingly beautiful score by Manilow and effective book and lyrics by Sussman as well as its thoughtful and considered direction and staging by Carlyle make it a must-see for Broadway aficionados.
Harmony: A New Musical continues its Broadway run at the Ethel Barrymore, 243 West 47th Street in New York City. For tickets click here.