After a quarter century of development and countless delays, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s original musical “Harmony” finally makes its New York debut in an Off-Broadway production produced by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage of Battery Park City.
“Harmony” features the real-life story of the Comedian Harmonists, a vocal group from Weimar, Germany made up of six young, Jewish, gentile men whose success was shattered by the rise to power of the Nazis.
We spoke with Manilow (music) and Sussman (lyrics and book) about the show during a break in rehearsals.
Q: Why is this story worth telling right now, and why as a musical?
Manilow: I think it’s a good story about six incredibly talented, innovative and creative musicians who created a sound and number that no one had ever done before and no one had ever heard of. However, these days it seems to have hit us right in the face. It is more contemporary than ever, unfortunately.
Susan: When we were invited by the National Yiddish Theater to perform in this building where every stone is dedicated to remembrance, we knew it was the perfect place to do it. But now people are telling us that not only is it the perfect place, but we seem to have found the perfect time, and I’m not happy to say that.
The fact that the show sounds like that makes me nervous. I’m afraid people think we made the headlines and it’s the other way around. These lines were written three, five or seven years ago and they resonate more and more today. But history has always sung for us.
It occurred to us that this was the musical that we had always wanted to write, and that it had a thematic line in place, which was that it was a show about the quest for harmony, in what has proven to be one of the most discordant chapters of mankind. the story, and for us it was most definitely a musical.
Q: I remember writing about “Harmony” in 2003. How did you get through the series’ many stops and restarts?
Manilow: It just wouldn’t leave us alone. It wouldn’t go away. We believed in this story and in what we did so deeply. And even if it hurt every time the series didn’t happen, it kept coming back to us. We wouldn’t have done it again if the Yiddish Theater hadn’t offered us the place. How could we say no to that? So we dived again.
Susan: There were times when it hurt too much and we put it in a drawer. But then a producer would approach us. It happened three, four, five times. People would come up to us and say “the show has to be done. The story needs to be told and I would love to do that. And so we said “okay”. We opened the drawer and started again.
Q: Do you expect the show to transfer to Broadway?
Manilow: We have ambitions for Broadway, and it would be great to end up in uptown as it should be. But right now, we’re very happy where we are, creating our show and doing the best “harmony” we can. I don’t think about the future. We are totally invested in this version of “Harmony”.
Susan: We’re deep in the weeds right now. We’re in rehearsal during the day, putting on patches and cuts, and watching the performances. We have blinders on right now. We have to do the work.
Q: How do the songs on “Harmony” compare to your pop songs?
Manilow: Everything about this show is filled with melody. I’m a melodic guy. And in the world of pop, the melody seems to have taken a nose dive. They don’t write melodies anymore. It’s the only thing I can say that I brought from the world of pop to the world of Broadway. But the thing is, I started out wanting to be in the world of Broadway, and I took what I learned on Broadway and put it into pop songs.
Q: Are there any musicals that “Harmony” is inspired by?
Susan: The concept of our show is that the first act is written in the style of a Golden Age musical that would have been written about this band if the events of the second act had not occurred. So in the first act, we’re tapping into those golden age shows. In the second act, this process is deconstructed and, finally, we are left with a single man who speaks without any musical accompaniment.
Q: How has “Harmony” evolved over the years?
Manilow: You know, it was already great. Ask people who saw it at La Jolla Playhouse (in 1997). They said “don’t touch it. It’s the biggest thing. It’s always been a solid musical. Yes, we have made changes. God knows we made so many changes that if you saw him in La Jolla, you might not even recognize him today. But it’s still “Harmony,” and it’s still what I consider to be a solid musical.
Susan: During the pandemic, Barry and I and (our manager) Warren (Carlyle) met every Tuesday and Friday on Zoom and said ‘we still have a year or a year and a half. Why not just give it a shake and see if there’s another version of this show that we like better than the one we have. And if we don’t, nothing is lost. We just go back to what we have. Well, we tried. We made a bold change, and we liked it, and this is the version we’re putting together, and it’s very different from what came before it.
Q: What qualities do you look for in actors who play the Comedian Harmonists?
Susan: Authenticity. It’s a very tough show to cast, especially the six guys. They must be triple threats. But the six we have now, I think Barry would agree, is the most authentic Comedian Harmonist sound we’ve ever had. And it’s exciting for us to see them do that.
Manilow: They are so young and talented. They sound like the Backstreet Boys. And the Comedian Harmonists were the Backstreet Boys of their time. These are six-part harmonies for each of these songs. Do you know how difficult it was for them to learn that?
Q: A lot of really outstanding actors appeared in the early productions of the series.
Susan: We pretty much discovered Patrick Wilson. He came off a “Carousel” tour, and we threw him in La Jolla and his career just went through the roof after that. And Danny Burstein and the late, great, wonderful Rebecca Luker. Kate Baldwin. Brian d’Arcy James. Aaron Lazar. We have been blessed in our casts over the years.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from the show?
Susan: That these six extraordinary people were there. And that in this very dark and troubled time, these six diverse human beings have found harmony.
“Harmony” runs until May 8 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, nytf.org.