Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest theater openings on Broadway and beyond.
It’s been 25 years in the making, but Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s musical about the Weimar-era singing group the Comedian Harmonists finally premiers in New York City. Presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Harmony traces the triumphs, trials and tribulations of one of Europe’s most popular vocal groups as their rise to fame is disrupted by the onset of World War II.
A cast of young, enthusiastic talent brings the harrowing story to life, framed by narration and a multitude of characters portrayed by Broadway veteran Chip Zien. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle (also represented this season as choreographer of the starry revival of The Music Man featuring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster) digs deep to lift the show from biography to heart-tugging drama.
No Tea, No Shade:
A group of musical artists, passports revoked, struggling to get out of a war-torn country with wads of cash sewn into their coat linings. The eerie image could be torn from today’s headlines as desperate Ukrainians flee their destroyed cities and towns. It’s impossible to watch Harmony, featuring Manilow’s soaring melodies and exquisite arrangements, without feeling the very real impact of the current global crisis.
Carlyle’s direction and choreography keep the action moving briskly as the group takes shape in Berlin, then eventually finds its way to New York City, Copenhagen, Cologne and Munich. The rapid-fire urgency that escalates as Hitler comes into power, offset by the lush harmonies of the show-within-a-show performances, creates a forward momentum, tarnished by the inevitable outcome of a country crippled by a dictator.
Zien portrays an older version (with a striking resemblance to his younger counterpart Danny Kornfeld) of Rabbi, one of the Comedian Harmonists, framing the musical’s action as the group gains success. Similar to other bio-musicals like Jersey Boys and Ain’t Too Proud, it’s difficult to invest in any singular storyline with six narratives to follow. Still, book writer Sussman (a longtime Manilow collaborator) finds an anchor in Rabbi’s love not only for music and performing but his wife Mary (Sierra Boggess), who says early in their relationship, “We didn’t exactly ‘just happen.’ I think you have to fight for happiness. Are you a fighter, Rabbi?”
That fight-or-flight mode appears as a recurring theme, culminating in what feels like an exaggerated plot point in which the group finds itself on the same train as the Führer, with Young Rabbi considering a sacrificial act that could change the course of history. Except that the meeting actually happened — a chilling reminder of how our destiny can instantly shift.
While Harmony sticks to its central figures, Sussman includes one stinging line that reminds us how quickly history can repeat itself as a Standartenführer tells the group, “My domain — this is a bit unpleasant, I know — my domain is the tracking down of abortionists and homosexuals.”
Let’s Have a Moment:
The six-part harmony lives up to the show’s name, deftly led by musical director John O’Neill, who contributed to Manilow’s vocal arrangements. But you can’t have a Barry Manilow musical without a Barry Manilow ballad like “Could It Be Magic” or “Looks Like We Made It.”
In this case, that song is “Every Single Day,” sung by Young Rabbi as he convinces Mary to accept his marriage proposal. One wishes the song was truly the 11 o’clock number instead of Zien’s strained musical soliloquy “Threnody” after that fateful train encounter. But even with its placement in Act I, Kornfeld taps into what has made Manilow a musical icon for more than 50 years — an unapologetic romanticism.
The Last Word:
“We felt like it was our duty to make people aware of this group,” Manilow told Broadway.com. “They were so talented, and their story is so tragic, and nobody remembers them and people should.”
In a sad twist of fate, Manilow tested positive for COVID-19 just prior to the show’s opening but used the opportunity to advocate for the value and importance of live theater.
“This just might be the cruelest thing that has ever happened to me: 25 years waiting for this show to premiere in New York and I can’t attend,” Manilow said in a statement.”Even in the face of this pandemic, we New Yorkers remain the toughest, staunchest people on the planet — so, put on a mask and go see a show!”
Harmony plays at Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust through May 15, 2022.