By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s HARMONY, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. There are the six phenomenal men who play “The Comedian Harmonists” – an OG boy band from a century ago; a virtuoso performance by a Broadway legend; the unexpected soaring score by its composer; Beowulf Boritt’s dynamic scenic design; Warren Carlyle’s superb direction and choreography; or that they’re working in synch to tell an incredible story that actually happened but was nearly erased and lost forever.
It’s a story that, if made up, no one would believe. So much so HARMONY includes this statement in their Playbill.
“The Comedian Harmonists” were indeed the toast of Europe from the late 1920s through the early War years. The events dramatized here are largely as they occurred. Some license has been taken with chronology and locale. Characters of historical merit – politicians, performers, men of science and letters – all indeed factored into the story. The uncanny meeting on the train, dramatized in our second act, happened.”
The other unimaginable aspect is that virtually no one has any idea who The Comedian Harmonists were despite their unparalleled global success at the time. It would be a little like a hundred years from now, no one knowing who The Beatles were. Such is the underlying theme of history playing through HARMONY.
Not just another in the long line of pop star bio-musicals, HARMONY speaks about the people involved and the world in which they lived, but also the one we live in today. Bruce Sussman’s sharp and emotional book follows the six men who meet through an audition notice in the paper to form a singing group in 1927 Berlin. They create a remarkable singing sextet, but a serendipitous event at their first big gig forces them to improvise last-minute costumes, and they go from ordinary to extraordinary, destined to enthrall audiences the world over. Years later, another serendipitous event performing the fictitious “Hungarian Rhapsody #20” would have an opposite twist of fate.
Germany between the wars was a maelstrom of political movements fighting for power. But for The Comedian Harmonists, some Jewish and some gentile, success grows as does their accord and lives together including wives and interfaith marriages. All of this is vividly remembered and reflected on by Rabbi, the remaining member of the group left tell their story. Chip Zien plays Rabbi, a role that could not be more suited to him and one in which he gives the stunning performance of his career. The joy and heartbreak Zien brings to the role as he watches his younger self, and his friends navigate fame and fascism is in a word devastating.
At the heart of the HARMONY are the six Comedian Harmonists, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey as Bobby, Young Rabbi, Harry, Erich, Chopin, and Lesh, respectively. Each one is a brilliant vocalist in their own right but together in tight six-part harmonies, they are simply stellar. Fortunately, each one is also given their moment in the spotlight to shine individually with a featured song. At a time when vocalists are judge by their histrionic power belts amped up within an inch of ear splitting, these six men sparkle with a kind of dazzling musicianship rarely seen on Broadway today. In addition to being ridiculously talented (the first tenor can hit an E above high C), they’re cute, handsome, and sexy with someone for everyone as their charisma floods the theatre.
With that kind of virtuosity centerstage, how do other supporting characters ever get noticed? You get Sierra Boggess as Mary, Julie Benko as Ruth to play the wives of Young Rabbi and Chopin. Here again their breathtaking vocal performances shine individually but together in Act II’s “Where You Go” are heartachingly perfect together.
Singers are nothing without great songs, and HARMONY has one of the most beautiful scores heard on the main stem in years. It’s not often a musical has an “11:00 number” in the middle of the first act or can surpass it when it does. To be sure, this is not the score you would expect from the iconic Barry Manilow as its composer. In fact, if the Playbill’s title page was missing you would never know he wrote the songs. It’s a great compliment to his talent that Mr. Manilow can find a new sound for the Broadway stage completely different from the one that’s been selling out his concerts for decades.
At the helm of HARMONY is Warren Carlyle whose direction and choreography are at their finest. The group’s riotous routines and the show’s production numbers are slick and often hilarious even as the characters’ lives swerve more and more beyond their control. As they do, Carlyle knows exactly when to break the fourth wall putting the audience into the action as witnesses to the Third Reich’s growing hate and violence with disturbing effect.
One of the most impressive aspects of Bruce Sussman’s book is the choice not to make this another “they didn’t see it coming” story about the rise of NAZIism. They did see it coming and were warned about it by famous learned people. Then they made the choices they thought best. All things being 20/20 in hindsight, Chip Zien’s Rabbi is forced to look back at decisions made, actions not taken, and the tragic results. This perspective gives HARMONY an immediacy and connection to today.
We see the same discord happening in America, the hate and bigotry banning books, art, and the identities of people deemed less than, undesirable, or deviant. How do we not know who The Comedian Harmonists were? The NAZI regime passed laws banning anything by Jews, with Jews, or about Jews from being performed, sold, or played. They forced the group to disband, confiscated their sheet music, recordings, and the 13 films they made and destroyed them.
The frightening parallels are not lost on the audience whose reactions are both visceral and audible. It may have taken HARMONY thirty years to arrive on Broadway, but its message and timing could not be more perfect. As one person at intermission commented, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
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HARMONY – a new musical
By Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with intermission
Open run at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York City
Tickets available HERE