When Barry Manilow’s musical finally debuted in New York last year, I was thrilled. I had just one small reservation. On my second viewing of “Harmony,” which opens tonight on Broadway, that reservation has grown.
“Harmony” tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, an all-male German singing group hugely popular in Europe, who traveled to New York to make their Carnegie Hall debut in 1933, the year that Adolph Hitler came to power back home. This was a dilemma for them despite all their fans in Germany. Three of the six members of the group were Jewish.
Working with his long-time collaborator, the lyricist/librettist Bruce Sussman, 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. They could make their voices sound like musical instruments, give a jazz flavor to classical songs, offer a comic take on popular melodies.
Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle, adapt at Broadway song-and-dance (Tony nominated for choreographing The Music Man) goes full-out razzmatazz with the one Manilow number that the singer-songwriter seems to have created to feed the fans of his pop hits — “We’re Goin’ Loco” which echoes “Copacabana (At The Copa),” and features a performer portraying Josephine Baker. (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, but they didn’t.) Most of the rest of Manilow’s score is a faithful pastiche of the sort of songs the Comedian Harmonists performed, and Carlyle’s choreography follows suit – elegant when called for, comic in such numbers as “How Can I Serve You Madam,” where they perform in waiter’s red jackets and their underwear, their tuxedoes having been stolen. (It ends with the spritzing of seltzer.) More pointed humor occurs in “Come to the Fatherland,” where they move like marionettes — their response to the Nazi effort to control them.
“Harmony” made its New York debut in the relatively small theater at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The Ethel Barrymore on Broadway is three times the size, and it makes sense that the creative team would make things bigger – enlarge the sets, adding some elegant Art Deco touches, play up the slapstick. But they’ve also pumped up the emotion.
I have something of a personal interest in the story of the Comedian Harmonists, having interviewed the last surviving member of the group, the baritone Roman Cycowski, shortly before he died at the age of 97. In a documentary film that had been released about the group, and in the interview with me, he talked about an incident that surely made him the only pious Jew on record to have met the leader of the Third Reich; they passed each other in a dining car in 1935. The way he recounted the incident was far more matter-of-fact than the way it is recreated in “Harmony.” Chip Zien, who portrays Cycowski as an old man – and serves as the narrator of the story – is wracked with guilt and fury at his younger self (portrayed by Danny Kornfeld) for not having killed the dictator, feeling responsible for the Holocaust that followed.
This seemed a bit much to me when I saw it downtown, particularly since the real Cycowski didn’t give any indication that he felt this way, but I viewed it as minor compared to all that was so heartening about the show. But emotions in that scene and others have been pushed to fever pitch on Broadway. And that heightening helped me to see a disjunction – a disharmony — between the two halves of “Harmony.” The stage performances by the singing group are wonderfully entertaining, a showcase for some greatly talented singers. The offstage drama feels as if it belongs in a different, less polished, play.
The story begins straightforwardly enough. After the opening number in Carnegie Hall, Zien as Rabbi (his nickname because that’s what he studied to be before he fled Poland) takes us back in time 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 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, aka 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.
We see them rehearsing in an abandoned subway station, get their first break as backup to Marlene Dietrich, become big stars.
Early on, the story starts focusing on two love stories – between Young Rabbi and Mary (Sierra Boggess, golden voice albeit underutilized), a gentle Gentile; and between the Gentile Chopin and Ruth, a feisty Jew (portrayed by Julie Benko, fresh from her success in “Funny Girl.”) This allows for some lovely ballads, most memorably melodically, “Every Single Day,” which Young Rabbi sings to Mary. The song is memorable for another reason: Mary doesn’t want to marry Rabbi because of the grave threat that such an interreligious marriage would pose to both of them. It’s, you know, Nazi Germany. But that single song convinces her to change her mind; when the song ends, she rushes to him for a hug. The show doesn’t really ever get much more nuanced than that. The two marriages seem to exist so that they can fall apart. There’s a lot more melodramatic screaming than I remember the first time around.
It took a quarter century for Manilow and Sussman to bring “Harmony” to New York, presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, which seemed fitting, and was one reason it was exciting. So much has changed since then in the world; so much has changed in the last month! The show feels now like an occasionally enjoyable entertainment more than something we need to see.
Ethel Barrymore Theater
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Beowulf Boritt (scenic design), Linda Cho & Ricky Lurie (costume design), Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting design), Dan Moses Schreier (sound design), batwin + robin productions (media design), Tom Watson (hair & wig design),
Cast: Chip Zien as Roman Cycowski aka Rabbi; Sierra Boggess as Mary; Julie Benko as Ruth; the Comedian Harmonists Sean Bell as Bobby, Danny Kornfeld as Young Rabbi, Zal Owen as Harry Frommerman , Eric Peters as Erich Collin, Blake Roman as Erwin Bootz aka Chopin, and Steven Telsey as Ari Leschnikov, aka Lesh; Allison Semmes, Andrew O’Shanick, Zak Edwards, Dan Hoy, Bruce Landry, RhonniRose Mantilla, Daniel Z. Miller, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Constantine Pappas, Kayleen Seidl, Kyla Stone, Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Wesler, Stuart Zagnit, and Lee Zarrett.