Tony-nominated Director-Choreographer Warren Carlyle Has Had a Magical Time Bringing Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony to Broadway.
By: Ellis Nassour
November 9. 2023: Tony-winning choreographer (After Midnight) and Tony nominee (The Music Man) and now with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle is “elated beyond belief” to be bringing this “labor of love” to Broadway after way too long. He certainly isn’t alone.
Over 50 producers [from veterans such as Ken Davenport, Sandi Moran, Hunter Arnold, James L. Nederlander, Garry Kief (Manilow’s husband and long associated with staging his concerts), numerous production companies, and investors (many newcomers] were thrilled with Carlyle’s April 2022 production presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at Edmond Safra Hall in the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The next goal was Broadway. Sadly, because of Covid, Manilow wasn’t able to see the production at the Battery until the closing performance in May (2022), when he announced there would be a Harmony original cast recording.
“To share this with Barry and Bruce in better times and on Broadway is a wonderful gift to them – and me,” said Carlyle. “How this production came together as a creative partnership at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theatre has been one of the great pleasures of my life. I loved the show since Barry (music) and Bruce (book, lyrics) brought it to my attention.”
From his “extraordinary experience” working with longtime friends Hugh Jackman and director Jerry Zaks, the master of comedy, in the blockbuster Music Man revival, “it’s just incredible to be directing and choreographing the very intimate Harmony,” which arrives in New York after productions in California, Philadelphia, and Atlanta over the past two decades.
Harmony retraces the saga of a male vaudeville, multi-talented sextet, the Comedian Harmonists, made up of Jews and gentiles in Weimar-era Germany. Their popularity as vocalists and comics in the late 20s and early 30s spread worldwide. There were sold out concerts (including one at Carnegie Hall), recordings, and a number of films – until Hitler’s rise to power with Jews being rounded up and sent to concentration camps or, if they could manage, fleeing to other countries. The latter makes up the very personal challenges at the heart of the musical.
Manilow, Sussman, and Carlyle’s friendship goes back a way — another reason Carlyle wanted to do the show. They met when Carlyle was cast in the veteran hitmaker and veteran songwriter‘s 1994 West End musical, Copacabana. “It has been another joyous reunion. To be able to work on it has been simply a miracle.” Was going from a huge musical with a cast of 50, to such an intimate show in an intimate space a challenge? “Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. The smaller stage and cast required a new mindset. Could there have been a more relevant time for a show filled with glorious, uplifting music with the crushing situation in Ukraine. Democracy was being crushed and a homeland destroyed by a despot. That hung over all we did. It was difficult not to make comparisons, yet it was a terrific distraction from the headlines. Now it’s happening once again. We hope our show about the need to live together will again offer a distraction.”
The Off Broadway production received numerous nominations for outstanding musical (score and book), actor (Zien), choreographer, and director. Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, and newcomer Julie Benko (Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof revivals) along with the incredible harmonists — Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey — and ensemble “give Harmony such vitality. Did I say it’s a wonderful company? Everyone makes going to work every day such a pleasure!” He loves that there are 14 Broadway debuts in the cast.
Carlyle points out, ““Choreography and direction are based on emotion, so my mission has been to empathize it in the music and dance. There’s joy, the thrill of entertaining, love, and, sadly, tragedy; and it’s all a true story. My goal was to keep everything very real, and the cast gave their all.”
He explains that one of the wonderful things about his work choreographing and directing is that it’s something different every day. “Rarely does anything repeat itself. However, with such a large company, I’d be lost without my associate director and choreographer Sara Edwards and assistant director Rosie Corr.”
Manilow did the arrangements. The music orchestrator is Doug Walter and John O’Neill is music director. The extensive vocal arrangements are by Manilow and O’Neill.
To say Warren Carlyle likes to stay busy is a bit of an understatement. He’s a hurdler, akin to running marathon races. “I love the hustle and bustle of a show. It keeps me moving and creative – that’s vital to a choreographer and director. It also keeps me young. The work can be challenging, because it’s your ambition to keep coming up with something fresh, new.”
In high school in the UK, Carlyle excelled in swim and track, but soon became obsessed with dance, which proved quite strange to his mates. “I was bullied. It was awful, hurtful, and tough, but I discovered the best way to handle it was to ignore it. Somehow, I had the mind to find my inner strength to do my own thing.”
Ihe attended ballet school and began dancing professionally right out of university. He auditioned for Cats and in 1989 and was cast as Alonzo. “I am very tall, which I considered an asset,” he explains. “It turned out not to be. Since I towered over everyone, Gillian [Lynne] put me in the back or middle, but I kept feeling the urge to take a leap forward.”
He came to New York following Trevor Nunn’s 1988 London revival of Oklahoma!, choreographed by Susan Stroman. Carlyle was her associate. “Working with Susan was a complete joy.” It was also where he met his longtime friend Hugh Jackman, who starred as Curly. He was Stroman’s associate on The Producers and when Oklahoma!was Broadway-bound, Stroman wanted him as her associate. “They, whoever they are, say you learn from the best, and Susan is the very, very best, and a beloved friend. How could I say no.” He didn’t, and he stayed.
“I was a huge fan of Jerome Robbins and West Side Story. I moved here partly because I wanted to be in the world where he had been, the world of Broadway. Through each phase of my career I find myself looking up to him. I am so eager to celebrate him.”
In 2008, he was choreographer and director of A Tale of Two Cities and has been on a streak since.
He fell in love with New York, but missed his London flat and the garden he loved to work. His blessing, he reveals, “was finding a flat near Central Park. “I felt at home going for walks a couple of times a day with Bill Bailey Carlyle, my puggle (a cross between a pug and beagle). It was invigorating for me, if not for Bailey. I walked him so much that his legs are a bit shorter!”
The pandemic was a most difficult time. “It was frightening.” notes Carlyle. “It was weird. My goal is to never stop, just to keep moving, I’m up early and on the run, but there was nowhere to run. I worried I’d come down with something, so I stayed put in my flat except for the walks. They were a blessing. Keeping busy was hopeless – well, until I decided to learn how to cook. I also thought it was about time I learned to play the piano. I’m still learning. “I’m pretty awful doing both. The piano is definitely a challenge, but I’m determined.”
His time here, he states, “has been filled with rewards beyond my imagination. How magical it has been. Every day I pinch myself. It’s a wonder I’m not black and blue. It’s just not possible to have been so fortunate. My time in the U.S. in the city of dreams is part of a longtime dream I never imagined could come true.”