The road to Broadway is long and paved with good intentions. Two people who know that for a fact are the legendary entertainer Barry Manilow and longtime creative collaborator Bruce Sussman. They’ve spent the last quarter-century trying to get their passion project — a historical musical about an internationally renowned singing group disbanded by the Nazis — to the Great White Way. Now, nearly three decades of regional productions, legal issues, and rewrites later, Manilow and Sussman have finally succeeded. Following a New York debut at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in 2022, Harmony is up and running at the Barrymore Theatre.
His name was Yosef; he was a Rabbi. And his older self (played by the great Chip Zien in a career capstone of a performance) narrates the fascinating true(ish) story of the Comedian Harmonists, the all-male singing sextet that became one of Europe’s most successful bands during its seven-year existence from 1927-34. Made up of three Jews — founder Harry (Zal Owen), wealthy medical student Erich (Eric Peters), and Yosef (Danny Kornfeld) — and three gentiles — Bulgarian tenor Lesh (Steven Telsey), basso Bobby (Sean Bell), and a whorehouse pianist nicknamed Chopin (Blake Roman) — the Harmonists traveled the world, performed with the likes of Josephine Baker (Allison Semmes), hobnobbed with Richard Strauss and Albert Einstein (both Zien, in a succession of hilarious wigs by Tom Watson), and ultimately lost it all when the Third Reich ordered the destruction of all their records and films upon the realization that three of its members were not of the Fuhrer’s favorite ethnic persuasion.
To the credit of Sussman (book and lyrics) and Manilow (music), it’s an interesting story, one that’s still largely unknown. And you never get the sense (besides from the occasional disco beat in Doug Walter’s esoteric orchestrations) that these two are responsible for a big pop hit like “Copacabana.” Filled with sweet Eastern European melodies, Sussman and Manilow have crafted, for better or worse, an old fashioned musical that wears its heart on it sleeve and feels like it’s from another time (which it sort of is), both admirable in its intent and frustrating in how often it takes the easy road.
Chief among the problems is how the writers bog the show down in the kind of bombastic schmaltz that pervaded a lot of shows from the British Mega-Musical generation. There are two underdeveloped mixed religion romances: Rabbi has a beautiful goylfriend named Mary (Sierra Boggess, severely miscast); Chopin is in love with Jewish commie firebrand Ruth (Julie Benko, doing the most with the least), and the two women stand at the lip of the stage to deliver roof-raising power ballads with on the nose lyrics like “Where you go/I will go/where you walk/I’m beside you.” The tone uneasily wavers between sentimental moments like these, frothy musical comedy where the boys in their boxers squirt seltzer at each other during a performance, and terrifying drama, as the Nazis shout slurs in the aisles and break synagogue windows during a wedding. Can’t one Jewish musical-theater family have an uneventful chuppah for a change?
The six actors playing the Harmonists impressively handle these jarring shifts with more finesse than you’d think possible, and the fact that Bell, Kornfeld, Owen, Peters, Roman, and Telsey have managed to come up with six distinct and individual portrayals while still being harmonious with each other is a testament to the work put in by director and choreographer Warren Carlyle. Similarly, Zien is breathtaking in his 11 o’clock moment, bringing gravitas to a semi-unbelievable, though entirely real chance encounter with a major historical figure. In other hands, it would just be ridiculous, but Zien’s inherent lovability — he was the original Baker in Into the Woods, after all — makes it even more impactful.
Carlyle, who tore down and rebuilt the piece with the writers during the pandemic shutdown, takes cues from artists like Bertolt Brecht and Harold Prince, staging the show in a giant mirrored box (the set is by Beowulf Boritt) that adds further depth by confronting the audience with its own complicity (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s haunting lighting effects do the same). It does get a little heavy-handed here and there, both in text and imagery, as the Harmonists dance like puppets in a condemnation of Hitler’s policies (Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie’s costumes are standard period fare), and massive swastikas are projected onto the stage to signal the rise of the Third Reich (the otherwise stealthy video work is by Batwin and Robin). But Carlyle has clearly put a lot of thought into how to make the material seem like it’s deeper than it actually is, and he ends up finding a lot of nuance along the way.
Whether or not Harmony will find harmony in the bright lights of Times Square is anyone’s guess in a precarious theatrical landscape where better shows have come and gone in a New York minute, but if nothing else, amid a precipitous worldwide rise in antisemitism, the time is certainly, and unfortunately, right for it. This is a show that my grandparents would have raved about during the post-services Kiddush luncheon: undeniably moving and extremely powerful, the pros of Harmony generally outweigh the cons. It’s not as profound as everyone involved clearly thinks it is, but it’ll give you the good cathartic cry you’ve been waiting for.