Reviews

Harmony: A New Musical ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

November 16, 2023: (Note: the following includes passages, with revisions and updating, from my review of the Off-Broadway production of Harmony (for another site) when it appeared at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April 2022.)

Wilkommen, old friends, to Berlin, the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Jazz Age, the rise of the Nazis, and the world of entertainers and cabarets. Such is the background of—sorry, no, not the one you’re thinking of—but the long-awaited Harmony: A New Musical, with music by beloved pop music icon Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by his collaborator of half a century, Bruce Sussman. 

Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Chip Zien, Eric Peters, Sean Bell and Zal Owen.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

November 16, 2023: (Note: the following includes passages, with revisions and updating, from my review of the Off-Broadway production of Harmony (for another site) when it appeared at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in April 2022.)

Wilkommen, old friends, to Berlin, the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Jazz Age, the rise of the Nazis, and the world of entertainers and cabarets. Such is the background of—sorry, no, not the one you’re thinking of—but the long-awaited Harmony: A New Musical, with music by beloved pop music icon Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by his collaborator of half a century, Bruce Sussman. 

Actually, despite its title, Harmony, a passionate, unusually timely, yet somewhat shaky work of politico-historical theatre, is not “new.” Although its New York premiere was scheduled for 2020, just as Covid was beginning to cause havoc, and its next announced opening, in March 2021, was also postponed, the show’s inception goes back a full quarter of a century. It debuted in La Jolla in 1997, and had later iterations in Philadelphia (2003), Atlanta (2013), and Los Angeles (2014), all the while aiming for the Big Apple. Now, following last year’s warmly—if not universally—recommended reception at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, it’s finally reached its ultimate destination, Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with most of its Off-Broadway leads intact. 

There’s no question that, in the vibrant staging of Tony-winning director choreographer Warren Carlyle (The Music Man), it’s often powerful and enthralling. Still, even though presented by a distinctively talented ensemble, Harmony continues to fall a bit short of the comedic, musical, or emotional heights it needs to qualify as great, rather than merely good, or even very good, theatre.

Allison Semmes as ‘Josephine Baker’ and the Company of HARMONY. 

Harmony tells the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a sextet of male singer-comedians who rocketed to fame during the Weimar Republic, gaining international fame (even playing Carnegie Hall in 1933), producing many hit records, and appearing in over a dozen films. However, three of them were Jewish and one was married to a Jew named Ruth (a fiery Julie Benko, Funny Girl, new to the company), who—as expressed in a dynamic red flag-waving number—also was a communist activist. 

As the episodic show progresses, the political background comes sharply into focus when, following President Hindenburg’s death, Hitler becomes the Fuehrer, and the Jews and their art turn into officially designated targets of discrimination and persecution. A key scene takes place in 1933 when the group is performing in New York and its members argue about the wisdom of returning to Germany, ultimately deciding to do so. 

Despite this unfortunate decision, and their imminent dissolution when the German government declares their work “degenerate,” a narrative recap at the end informs us that they all survived the war. However, the group itself was dead and its legacy nearly liquidated.

During the course of two and a half hours (shortened by about 15 minutes from its overlong Off-Broadway version), the story is told largely through the memory of the 87-year-old “Rabbi” (Chip Zien, giving the performance of his life), a Pole who had abandoned the bima for the boards. His youthful persona is present as the “Young Rabbi” (Danny Kornfeld, an excellent match as Zien’s younger self). 

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters and Sean Bell.

The show’s construction allows Rabbi to become the central figure as he looks back with both fondness and regret over the distant past, often expressing his fruitless frustration at the mistaken choices of his younger self. This becomes dramatically significant during a scene in which Young Rabbi, riding with his group on a train also carrying Hitler, rejects the opportunity—albeit at the certain cost of his own life—to shoot the Fuehrer. Unlikely as this circumstance may seem, a program note confirms that it—or, at least the simultaneous presence of Hitler and the singers on the same train—actually happened.

While there have been a number of revisions from the Off-Broadway version, the bits where Chip Zien’s Rabbi is asked to change wigs and costumes to play comic versions of Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss remain; just as then, it’s a farcical device that quickly runs dry. Happily, the too-cute idea of giving these personages a phony actor name in the cast list has been dropped. Even better, the painfully unfunny scene, where Rabbi appeared in blonde-wigged drag to impersonate Marlene Dietrich doing a “Blue Angel”-type routine, has been replaced by a brief silhouette of the top-hatted, bare-legged German star. 

When it comes to music, Harmony couldn’t be more harmonious. That, actually, is the story’s thematic raison d’etre, the beauty of a world where people of disparate backgrounds can coexist peacefully, each contributing to the general well-being. But the artists about whom the show is concerned were equally famous because they had discovered that they were also funny, which is why their name was changed from the Harmonists to the Comedian Harmonists. In the slapstick scene where they introduce broad comedy into their act, they dress as waiters above and in boxer underwear below, spilling carafes of water on two well-dressed patrons and spritzing them from seltzer bottles. It’s about as funny as you’d feel if you yourself were the target of their dousing.

When I reviewed the show last year, I mentioned how pertinent its subject matter was to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now, of course, it’s impossible to divorce the show from concerns over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the flood of antisemitism it’s incited both here and abroad. Given the current socio-political circumstances in America, you can’t watch what happened as the Nazis came into power and not think that something similar could happen here. 

Chip Zien

Sussman’s book, covering multiple “heroes” and events over a six-year period, relies mainly on skin-deep impressions of personalities and circumstances. We know in our brains what they’re enduring, but the essential gut-wrenching rarely happens, partly because the show’s musical theatre style and the need to simplify multiple dramatic conflicts inspires melodramatic writing and acting. Further, the dramatic structure, which is forced to delve into issues affecting each group member (some more than others), occasionally leads to a sense of statis when we want the action to get more swiftly to the point.

Harmony comes closest to packing its emotional punch when Zien’s delivers the eleven o’clock number, “Threnody,” which grows out of the Jewish prayer, “Shema Yisrael,” into which he pours every bit of feeling in his bones. It’s a moment to be cherished and remembered.

Regardless of the significant subject matter, the draw here is surely Manilow’s eclectic score, little of which is reminiscent of his earworm-worthy pop hits. While some numbers are designed to serve immediate dramatic needs, others, more conventional, inspire a wish to hear them again, among them the soulful “Every Single Day,” a ballad sung by Young Rabbi.  

The exquisite Sierra Boggess (School of Rock), as Young Rabbi’s blonde, gentile wife, Mary, sings so enchantingly she makes her so-so numbers, like “And What Do You See,” sound better than they are. (Her acting, however, is unable to overcome the role’s overwhelming blandness.) When she joins Benko’s Ruth for “Where You Go” their gorgeous voices soar with heart-thumping vibrancy. 

Julie Benko and Sierra Boggess.

A bouncy revue-type number, “We’re Goin’ Loco!,” set in an imaginary Ziegfeld Follies of 1934, showcases the famed Black star Josephine Baker (livewire Allison Semmes, new to the cast), shimmying (think “twerking”) her butt off; had it borne the infectious beat, melody, and lyrics of Manilow and Sussman’s “Copacabana” it might have blown the joint’s roof sky-high.

Carlyle’s invigorating choreography is a saving grace; his Comedian Harmonists show remarkable versatility as both singers and dancers: watch, for example, as they crouch and kick their way through the gypsy-inflected “Hungarian Rhapsody #20.” Or witness the satirical, super-clever—but not particularly unique—“Come to the Fatherland,” where, arms attached to ribbon-strings, they perform in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Park as German marionettes. The actors: Blake Roman as Chopin, Steven Telsey as Lesh, Zal Owen as Harry, Eric Peters as Erich, Sean Bell as Bobby, and, of course, Danny Kornfeld. 

If you wish to hear the originals, a substantial number of recordings are on YouTube, including a lovely rendering in barely accented English of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Its smooth manner, by the way, contrasts with the more overstated musical personality often displayed in Harmony.

Beowulf Boritt has ramped up his relatively simple setting, with a mirrored overhead unit replacing Off Broadway’s mirrored walls. As before, the various times and locales (noted in projected titles) are represented by selective props and scenic units. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer provide their legendary lighting magic, and costume designers Linda Cho and Ricky Laurie have upgraded some of their excellent period-defining costumes.  

Harmony looked Broadway bound from the start; it had to overcome many obstacles and, while still saddled with imperfections, unquestionably deserves to be there. This may not be the Barry Manilow show fans have been dreaming of but seeing it will only increase their appreciation for the talent and humanity of this extraordinary artist. Harmony may be impossible for mankind to achieve, but, as this show demonstrates, it’s a goal we must either strive for or become extinct.

Harmony: A New Musical ***1/2
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: Julieta Cervantes and Adam Riemer