Interview: Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman Finally Bring Their Harmony to New York
Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have written a lot of hits together — among them, one of the pop music's defining songs, "Copacabana." For years, they've had a passion project, a musical called Harmony.
Harmony is the story of a little-known German performance group, the Comedian Harmonists. Manilow describes them as the "Backstreet Boys of their day" — between 1928 and 1934, they became one Europe's most successful bands in the pre-World War II era. And then the world changed.
The musical has had a very long life, originally debuting in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse. A 2003 Broadway transfer was scheduled, but bad producing scuttled those plans. It was resurrected in a decade later at the Alliance Theatre in Georgia and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, before again laying dormant. But now, it's in rehearsals for its long-awaited New York premiere.
Warren Carlyle is directing and choreographing this newly rewritten production at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a production of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. And Manilow and Sussman could not be more excited to see their show finally take Manhattan.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Bruce, you had gotten the idea for the show initially after seeing a film about the Comedian Harmonists. Did you know anything about them beforehand?
Bruce Sussman: No, and I couldn't imagine how I didn't know anything about them. To put it in modern terms, the Comedian Harmonists were a combination of the Manhattan Transfer and the Marx Brothers. They were brilliantly talented, incredibly inventive, and wildly successful, and then they hit a brick wall. Barry and I had been looking for a musical for a long time, and this was it. He took a leap of faith and got on board.
Give me an overview of the show. What can we expect?
Bruce: Our first act is in the style of a Golden Age musical. We like to think of it as the Golden Age musical that would have been written about them had the events of the second act not occurred. How they fare in their confrontation with history is our second act.
Barry, what does the music sound like? How does it compare to the songs that made you a legend?
Barry Manilow: It doesn't sound like pop music. When you write a score for a musical, the songs have got to move the story along, and that's fun to write. In a pop song, all you've got are "I love you" or "I miss you" or "I love you and I miss you" or "I miss you and I love you." That's it. So this is a Broadway score that's filled with different styles of music, because that's what the Comedian Harmonists sounded like. It's very diverse. Every style I ever wanted to do these guys did, and the story allowed me to do it.
Bruce: One review said Barry's score was virtuosic, and I think that's the right word. The range of styles, all in correct period, is immense. But we started out as theater babies. When we met, we wanted to write shows. The pop career was a detour.
Barry: Bruce would always say "That 'Mandy' thing stopped us!" I never thought of myself as a performer or singer or entertainer. I was happy being in the background, but all of a sudden, I found myself making records and going on tour and I had to learn a whole new kind of art, which stopped me from writing the kinds of things I wanted to write. But now we've done it, and I'm certainly happy that we're doing it in New York and at this wonderful place.
Tell me about working with Warren Carlyle and your cast, and the impact they've had on the material.
Barry: Warren Carlyle is a genius. He's very inventive and filled with ideas. This is not the Harmony Bruce and I know. He's serving it up totally differently than anyone else has. It's more exciting and deeper than it's ever been.
Bruce: We would meet with Warren every Tuesday and most Fridays over Zoom during the pandemic. We thought we would do the same small tweaking that you'd do whenever a show goes into production, but early on, we had an idea for a really big change, which everyone seems to like. Every page is different, so it's very fresh. We're especially thrilled about the six young men who are playing the Comedian Harmonists. They are scary good. Rehearsals have been on fire, particularly the last several days as Barry's been here working on the music with them.
Barry: They're so young and they sound so young. They sound like the Backstreet Boys. And the Comedian Harmonists were the Backstreet Boys of their day, so this is really what their music sounded like.
What is it like to tell this story in the Museum of Jewish Heritage at a time that's so fraught?
Barry: It's deeper than it's ever been. Bruce has written so many lines over the years that sound like they're happening today.
Bruce: I'm concerned that people are thinking I'm writing to the headlines, but it's the other way around. But we're at the right place. We're in a place that's about remembering, and this is a story about remembering. And it's the right time. It's terrible that it's the right time. But it's the right time.