Barry Manilow’s musical “Harmony” in New York – culture

The fact that this is no ordinary place for a musical is already evident at the entrance. A uniformed policeman eyes those waiting, and after they show their vaccination certificates, they have to undergo an airport security check.

That’s because Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s musical ‘Harmony’ is being performed at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, which is dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust — on the one hand, a place that still needs special protection to this day, and on the other, pretty much the last place you’d expect to see a musical by Barry Manilow, famous for his handkerchief-soft ballads. But, to anticipate: That fits.

For 25 years, Manilow had dreamed of bringing his musical to Broadway. In “Harmony” he and his lyricist Sussman tell the story of the Comedian Harmonists, the German singing group that was celebrated in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s and began a world career that the Nazis ended because three of the six members were Jews.

The piece premiered in San Diego in 1997, after which Manilow made it to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles, but not to New York. It may be that the commercial theaters on Broadway felt it was too risky to bring together merriment, song, dance and Nazis. It couldn’t have been due to the musical itself, because it was extraordinarily successful.

So-called “jukebox musicals” are popular on Broadway, in which a star’s life story is told in a usually ridiculously thin plot, which serves as an excuse to sing all of their hits. Currently you can watch musicals about Tina Turner or Michael Jackson in this category.

They could have stayed in America – and decided against it

“Harmony” works differently, there isn’t a single original song by the Comedian Harmonists to be heard. The band’s story is conveyed through Manilow’s music and Sussman’s lyrics. Unlike previous versions of the musical, this time there is a narrator on stage, the last survivor of the band, who looks back on the great days. Maybe it’s this simple trick that the piece needed to really work. Broadway veteran Chip Zien is brilliant in the role.

The fact that Manilow made it to New York, but not Broadway, must be imagined as a stroke of luck. The location of the performance gives the piece another dimension, a depth that it might not be able to achieve elsewhere. In any case, it gives you chills to hear a man in Nazi uniform barking orders on the stage in this very building.

While jukebox musicals are often terribly boring because they’re essentially overpriced concerts by a cover band, “Harmony” has a well-told story. The starting point is a moment at New York’s Carnegie Hall, where the members of the band have reached the peak of their careers when they perform in 1933 and receive an offer from the network NBC to stay in the USA for a long-term series of concerts. Stay or go, back to Germany? The viewers know what the right decision would have been.

Essentially, the play sticks to the actual story of the Comedian Harmonists. Some things have been condensed, some have been exaggerated, some have been added. For example, band founder Harry Frommermann actually placed an ad in the newspaper looking for singers. In the musical, five men who are miraculously made for each other and who become best friends report. In truth, Frommermann only selected one of 70 applicants, and it took a while for the group to finally find their cast.

The way in which the band finds itself in this musical, as a coincidence, is somewhat reminiscent of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s beautiful novel “Choral at the End of the Journey”, written by the ship’s band of the titanic told. Here, too, it seems as if the musicians who need to come together in order to strive towards their destiny together are coming together. And in the novel as in the musical it is clear from the start that the ending will not be good.

So the piece fades back to New York. Carnegie Hall. stay or go Weren’t these Nazis ridiculous figures who would disappear just as quickly as all the other ridiculous figures that populated the political scene at the time? And would you really make it in America? Wasn’t it safer to build on the base at home?

All understandable questions, but as a spectator you sit in the hall like in a horror film in which you want to call out to the protagonists: “Go not through this door!”, because you know what horror lurks behind it. A classic trick that always works.

The band decides to return to Germany, and that’s where the dark part begins.

The Jewish singers flee, the non-Jewish ones remain. They never see each other again

It goes without saying that the cast in a musical performed in New York can actually sing. In this case, yes, because not only do the six men in the band (Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, Steven Telsey) form a fantastic ensemble, the female lead roles are also excellently cast, especially Sierra Boggess , whose role as first girlfriend and later wife of the narrator is quite superficial, but whose voice sometimes fills the theater in such a way that one fears the spotlights will burst.

The female roles are also excellently cast.

(Photo: Julieta Cervantes/National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene)

In the second part of the performance, what has to happen happens. First it was said that the band should no longer play songs by Jewish composers. Then they say they should remove everything Jewish from the concerts. With a special permit, the Comedian Harmonists were allowed to sing in their original line-up for a while, partly because the Nazis thought they were good ambassadors for Germany abroad.

The only part of the performance that seems too far-fetched is when narrator Chip Ziem, in his role as former ensemble member Roman Cycowski, laments in a lengthy song that he was on the same train as Adolf Hitler in 1935 and missed the chance to meet him to shoot.

Quite apart from the fact that musicians generally didn’t carry firearms on trains or anywhere else back then, perhaps a little too much of the knowledge about the aftermath has flowed into the story at this point. Despite the incomprehensible horror that followed, it seems that people should feel guilty for not shooting Hitler in 1935 going too far. That it would have been morally correct in retrospect is another matter.

The encounter with Hitler is an invented one, in the musical it probably represents the question of whether or not anyone Hitler should have prevented it, by whatever means. This question is too complex to be dealt with shortly before the end of a musical.

In real life, the Jewish singers first fled to Austria in 1935. The non-Jewish members stayed in Germany. Both groups formed new bands. In the musical, the Comedian Harmonists have one last performance together, during which they are said to have already known they will never see each other again. Gradually, the light above each of the singers goes out as the narrator reports when each one died.

All six musicians survived World War II, and yet this dying light sequence is deeply moving, both because it represents how Jewish art first disappeared from Germany, and because it also represents the genocide that followed. It was evident in these final minutes of the play that many people in the New York auditorium shed at least one tear from under their masks. When has a musical ever dared to send the audience home with such emotions?

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