The Comedian Harmonists, the singing group whose story is told in “Harmony,” Barry Manilow’s long-gestating musical, were as popular as the Beatles in their time and place. But their time and place was Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, so the group, made up of three Jews and three Gentiles, had some harrowing experiences, and some unique ones: One of the singers, the baritone Roman Cycowski, is surely the only pious Jew on record to have met Adolf Hitler; they passed each other in a dining car in 1935.
That scene is re-created in “Harmony,” which is running at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through May 15. It leads to a song sung by Chip Zien, who portrays Cycowski as an old man, the last surviving member of the group, who serves as narrator of their story. In the song, Zien as the older man urges his younger self (Danny Kornfeld) to kill the genocidal leader:
You can do it, if you do it…
It will change the world–
You change everything!
but no!!…. nothing!, nothing!! you did nothing!
and your punishment is
to remember everything!
It’s a moving song, powerfully rendered. But I happened to have interviewed Cycowski not long before he died at the age of 97; he had become a cantor in California. When I asked him about that long-ago encounter, he said he found it “interesting.” It didn’t sound as if he was wracked with regrets (which may have been a factor in his longevity.)
What’s most extraordinary about “Harmony,” though, is how little is in need of embellishment.
Manilow and his long-time collaborator, the lyricist/librettist Bruce Sussman, with whom he’s written hundreds of songs, including “Copacabana (At The Copa),” were smart to see the makings of a musical in this riveting true story. They produced the first version of “Harmony” in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse, and a later version at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles in 2014.
I don’t know why it’s taken 25 years for “Harmony” to make it to New York. All I can say is I’m glad I’ve gotten to see it, and I’d happily see it again.
“Harmony” begins with the concert the group gave at Carnegie Hall during their visit to the United States in 1933. Manilow uses an original score to reproduce the qualities that made the Comedian Harmonists so popular. They blended their disparate voices as one, offering their listeners close harmony during disharmonious times. They could make their voices sound like musical instruments, give a jazz flavor to classical songs, offer a comic take on popular songs.
We meet Zien as the older Cycowski, nicknamed Rabbi (because he had studied to be one), who takes us back to 1927, when Harry Frommerman (Zal Owen), a musical prodigy, takes out an advertisement in the Berliner Daily, seeking five young men to form a modern singing group. (Unmentioned in the musical for some reason is that Harry was inspired by the example of a popular American group of the era called The Revelers.) We meet the auditioners one by one: Ari Leschnikov, Lesh (Steven Telsey), a tenor who was working as a waiter, and was originally from Bulgaria; Erich Collin (Eric Peters), a medical student who can’t stand the sight of blood. It becomes a running joke throughout the musical of how well-connected Erich is, friends through his family of such famous men as Albert Einstein and composer Richard Strauss (all portrayed by Zien.); Erwin Bootz, known as Chopin (Blake Roman), who becomes their piano player; Robert Biberti, Bobby (Sean Bell), a bass from the Comic Opera; and finally Young Rabbi, originally from Poland.
In some twenty songs over fifteen scenes, we follow their rise to international stardom, starting as backup singers for Marlene Dietrich (portrayed of course by Zien.) There are also two love stories – between Young Rabbi and Mary (Sierra Boggess), a Gentile; and between Chopin and Ruth (Jessie Davidson), a Jew. These relationships give the excuse for some beautiful ballads, and provide a focus for the tensions that escalate with the Nazis rise to power. There is a sophistication in the depiction of this moment in history that makes it all the more chilling. The group has been out of the country for a year, touring the world, when it returns for a concert in 1934 at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, which is interrupted by Nazi youth shouting “Jew music.” A Nazi official called the Standartenfuhrer (Andrew O’Shanick), rises from his box and silences them. “This is a shameful display.” Afterward, he visits backstage with his wife. They are fans. He thanks them on behalf of the Fatherland. “Who could be fearful of the Germany that you so brilliantly represent. Your performances in other nations are proving to be a great asset to our cause. You are our… ambassadors of good will!” The Comedian Harmonists are so popular that they are initially given an “exemption” from the tightening restrictions on Jews. That doesn’t last long.
It would be difficult to claim that “Harmony” breaks new ground in musical theater, or offers a score that will take its place among the Golden Age greats. But under the direction of Broadway pro Warren Carlyle , with the stand-out performance by Chip Zien leading a large talented cast, “Harmony” is a moving story and a crowd-pleasing entertainment that echoes an impressive number of familiar glories. The top of Act II is a samba number “We’re Goin’ Loco” sung with Josephine Baker (Ana Hoffman) that reminded me of Manilow’s hit “Copacabana.” It’s an imagined number from the Broadway musical Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 that the Comedian Harmonists might have performed in had they decided to stay in New York. (For the record, Josephine Baker was not in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, but she did perform in the 1936 edition.)
In “Come to the Fatherland,” the Comedian Harmonists perform in Tivoli Park in Copenhagen dressed as marionettes, complete with strings, singing a vaudevillian-style ditty with bitterly satirical lyrics, which is somewhat reminiscent of the ventriloquist number in “Chicago.”
“Harmony” is the latest production of the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, which was founded a dozen years before the Comedian Harmonists, and has far outlasted them, coming into the spotlight over the last few years with such acclaimed productions as The Golden Bride, and the Joel Grey-directed Fiddler on the Roof. It seems fitting that they’re the ones at long last to bring the Comedian Harmonists back to New York.
National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through May 8. Update: Extended to May 15.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes including intermission
Written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie, lighting design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, video design by batwin + robin productions, inc.
Cast: Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Jessie Davidson, Ana Hoffman, Elise Frances Daniells, Zak Edwards, Abby Goldfarb, Eddie Grey, Shayne Kennon, Kolby Kindle, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Tori Palin, Barrett Riggins, Kayleen Seidl, Andrew O’Shanick, Dan Teixeira, Nancy Ticotin, and Kate Wesler.
Photographs by Julieta Cervantes