I hate even to call “Harmony,” which opened on Broadway Monday night, just Barry Manilow’s musical. It’s written by Bruce Sussman, a labor of love for both men. It’s been at least 25 years in the making.
“Harmony” is based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a troupe of singers who lived and worked in Berlin in 1934. Three of them were Jewish, including their nominal leader — called Rabbi — so you can imagine what fate befell them as the Nazis quickly gained power.
The story is a little “Fiddler on the Roof,” a little “Sound of Music.” But it’s no “Springtime for Hitler.” There is serious stuff going on as the Harmonists’ story runs the gamut from happy young men seeking fame to people running from fascism to save their own lives. “Harmony” could not be more timely at a moment in modern history when antisemitism is rampant.
Broadway veteran Chip Zien leads a strong cast of New York theater darlings including Sierra Bogess and Julie Benko as the wives and girlfriends of the Harmonists. Zien brings sharp comic timing and real pathos to Rabbi as an old man looking back at his life. Danny Kornfeld plays his younger self with all the necessary confidence and bravado of a young man on the upswing.
The other Harmonists are just as talented, and just so there’s bit of pizzazz, Sussman gives us Josephine Baker in the form of dazzling Allison Semmes so it’s not just a drab male downer. Semmes kicks it up just when some glamor and femininity are needed. Not that Benko and Bogess aren’t hot stuff, but their characters have more serious matters to deal with, like fighting those Nazis.
Nevertheless, Benko and Bogess sing like angels and Manilow has given them great material. The “Harmony” songs form a lovely score that’s got a couple of top 40 hits in the mix because come on, this is Barry Manilow. But the music also fits the Broadway mold and gives opportunities to the entire cast to show off their vocal chops. There were thunderous ovations opening night and even a standing ovation mid show. Director Warren Carlyle and the whole creative team have suffused “Harmony” with real depth.
There is nothing harder than premiering a new musical. The audience has been trained to adore revivals, material they know and love and are comfortable with. You’ve never heard these songs before, you don’t know where the story is going exactly. (You can read about the real Harmonists here.) So I give Sussman and Manilow extra points for being brave enough to pull this off. Is “Harmony” perfect? No. But in this political climate, the show has an extra urgency and reason to survive. You will be moved to tears by the end (in a good way), knowing that this journey gave us a blueprint for the future.