“Harmony – A New Musical” at the Alliance Theatre in Midtown ranks with that top Broadway show. From start to finish Sunday night, the actors in the collaboration between legendary musician Barry Manilow, his longtime writing partner, Bruce Sussman, who did the script and lyrics, and director Tony Speciale was amazing. It was Opening Night but the musical’s run actually started Sept. 6 and ends Oct. 6.
“Harmony” is the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a singing group of six men —- both Jews and gentiles — in Germany who sold millions of records and starred in 12 films but fizzled out due to the Nazis’ rise to power before World War II. It was a tale Manilow wanted to tell once he found out about it in the 1990s from Sussman, who saw a documentary on the group.
At that time he discovered one member of the Harmonists, “Rabbi” Josef Roman Cykowski, was still alive and living in the same Los Angeles suburb Manilow lived in. He tracked him down, met with him and got the full story. Rabbi, even at age 87, sung in the choir at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs, Calif. He was the oldest cantor in America then, Manilow said. Rabbi died 11 years later at 98. His wife Mary died in 2004, also at 98.
“Harmony” was launched in 1997 in the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.
At the Alliance, Sussman and Manilow sat in the back of the theatre, four rows behind my wife Maggie and me, and were introduced by Artistic Director Susan V. Booth before the show.
“These two men want to remain anonymous right now but we can’t let them because they’re icons,” she said, drawing a standing ovation after the pair stood during the acknowledgement.
The musical opens in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1933, during the Great Depression but then goes back five years to the group’s origin. Led by Harry Frommerman (played by Tony Yazbeck), the Harmonists started performing together in Berlin in 1927, two years before the Great Depression started. In September of that year, Harry placed an ad in the Berlin Observer seeking singers and a composer.
The musical had plenty of comedy with the composer, Erwin “Chopin” Bootz (Will Taylor), who said he previously played in a whorehouse, and a surgeon, Erich Collin (Chris Dwan), who said he also sings because he “can’t stand the sight of blood.” It also had plenty of harmony, as the group seemed to hit every octave possible and also was nearly flawless in its choreography.
The group rehearsed at a subway station where trains no longer ran.
After one show, Maestro Richard Strauss, an influential promoter, meets the Comedian Harmonists backstage following one of their performances and offers them a job at the prestigious Barbarina Club in Berlin.
While comedy was a constant in “Harmony,” there were plenty of serious moments. In one scene, when Rabbi proposes to Mary, she said she didn’t think they could survive the Nazis’ attack on the Jews, which was growing. She will convert to Judaism if they get married. “God help us,” she said when she accepts his proposal.
At the end of “Every Single Day,” a solo by Rabbi in which he ponders his present and future, he drew a resounding applause from the audience.
Before the group’s first Barbarina Club performance, a worker said someone broke into the office and stole their tuxedos and the petty cash, so they had to wear the waiters’ uniforms instead and more comedy ensued.
The performers then toured Europe and America, gaining popularity.
Act 2 begins with the group returning to Berlin as international stars. But with the Nazis’ strength increasing, it struggled with the idea of splitting up, with the Jews going one way, likely out of the country, and the gentiles another.
The group was originally exempt from the Nuremberg Laws, which, instituted in September 1935, placed strict limits on what Jews could and could not do. But just two months later, they were forced to comply with the laws and had their final performance, in Munich.
Chopin and Rabbi were the last living members of the group. The musical ends with Rabbi, at age 87 in 1987, reminiscing about the old days.
“Oh what I wouldn’t give for one more night with [the group],” he said.
The only negatives of “Harmony” were Acts 1 and 2 each started about eight minutes late. Also, Act 1 was about 90 minutes but Act 2 was only half that length. Though I did not want to necessarily spend three hours at the theatre, the imbalance was strange. However, moving some scenes from Act 1 into Act 2 would have ruined the cliffhanger at the end of Act 1.
Afterward, Manilow and Sussman, Speciale, Booth and Stage Director Lora K. Powell joined the cast onstage.
“What a great experience this has been,” Manilow said, adding the Alliance is a gem for the city. “You people who are from here have to be proud.”