October 22, 2019

The long road to ‘Harmony’ filled with twists and turns

The musical “Harmony,” which opened at the Ahmanson Theatre on March 4, spotlights the little-known true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a vaudevillian German sextet that rose to wild superstardom in the 1930s. But three of the group’s six members were Jewish, and by 1935 they had been forced to flee to the United States after the Nazis dissolved the sextet, destroyed all their albums and burned their 12 movies.

That Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman are behind the Nazi-era musical may come as a surprise to those who know Manilow strictly from his hit 1970s ballads (think  “Mandy” and “Looks Like We Made It”).

“But Bruce doesn’t consider me a megastar sex god,” Manilow quipped from his Palm Springs home during a recent conference call with Sussman.

“I’m in deep denial about it,” said Sussman, Manilow’s longtime songwriting collaborator. “This whole pop thing has just been one big annoyance, because it takes Barry away from the work that I really want him to do, which is to write musicals with me.”

Sussman had to wait decades for the opportunity.  He and Manilow first met at a BMI musical theater workshop in 1972, when both aspired to create first-class Broadway shows. But Manilow went on to become a songwriter, conductor and arranger for artists like Bette Midler — he started out as Midler’s pianist at the Continental Baths in New York — then became an accidental pop star.

Manilow had released one jazzy album when Clive Davis, the legendary founder of Arista Records, asked him to sing and record the sentimental ditty “Mandy” in 1974:  “Boy, did I resist him,” Manilow recalled. “I had no taste for pop music; I never listened to it.” But Davis persevered, and the song and Manilow’s ensuing pop album soared to No. 1 on the charts, rocketing the artist to unexpected superstardom in a genre he had never previously considered. “It turned out to be a happy accident,” said Manilow, who brought in Sussman to help him write a string of other hits such as “Can’t Smile Without You” and the upbeat “Copacabana.”

Yet the critics were brutal, pronouncing Manilow the king of treacly 1970s pop. “It was crazy-making, infuriating,” Manilow told the Journal in 2003. “The critics wouldn’t leave me alone,” he said recently. “I lived through that terrible period. To them, I was just a putz.”

His reception started to change about a decade ago, after Rolling Stone proclaimed Manilow “the showman of our generation”; he has now sold more than 80 million albums worldwide and continues to sell out concert halls.

With “Harmony,” which includes music by Manilow and book and lyrics by Sussman, he has finally realized his musical theater aspirations.   

Between rehearsals, the duo spoke at the Skirball Cultural Center, sharing the long, fraught journey of creating the show, which premiered to mixed reviews at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, then bounced back with glowing notices during a 2013 production at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

Manilow, 70, is still every bit the showman, and at the Skirball he was decked out in a spiky blond hairdo, sporting a black velvet blazer and patent leather shoes, his Brooklyn accent genteel. Sussman, 65, was bespectacled and more casually dressed but equally ebullient and passionate about the musical, as the collaborators joked and finished each other’s sentences.

“The show is a piece about the quest for harmony, in the broadest sense of the word, in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter of human history,” Sussman said in the conference call.

He revealed that he only chanced to learn about the Harmonists in 1991, when he came across an article about the group in The New York Times.  

“What first caught my eye was the photo of these six young men in white tie and tails, their hair Brilliantined, very sophisticated and stylish,” he recalled.  “And then I read the article and went, ‘Holy cow, what a story.’”

Sussman promptly attended a screening of a three-hour German documentary about the group, and was, he said, “overwhelmed by their brilliance and also by the fact that I hadn’t known anything about them.  When it comes to popular music, it’s pretty hard to stump Barry and me. But it turned out that the reason I didn’t know the story was the story: the Nazi efforts to obliterate their memory, except for the few records that people managed to hide under their beds.”

After the screening, Sussman rushed to a payphone to call Manilow in Palm Springs:  “I was blathering,” he recalled, “but somewhere in there I said, ‘I’ve found the musical we’ve been looking for.’ ”

Manilow was equally taken with the Comedian Harmonists. The men were also drawn to the project because of their Jewish backgrounds. Manilow grew up with Yiddish-speaking Russian grandparents in the slums of Brooklyn, and Sussman’s grandparents hailed from a shtetl in Belarus.  Both men remember the Holocaust survivors who lived in their neighborhoods.  

“Barry and I have exchanged notes about seeing that first horrible black-and-white newsreel footage of the camps, which inspired questions that went unanswered because the conversation was just shut down,” Sussman said.  Of “Harmony,” he added,  “Certainly, as Jews, we feel that we have some responsibility to help this story and stories like it survive.”

As research, Manilow immersed himself in klezmer and cantorial music, and then traveled to Berlin, where he filled an entire suitcase with Comedian Harmonists CDs as well as other popular German music of the 1920s and 1930s.  He said he studied the records for a year before he composed even one note of the 18 songs for “Harmony,” which, he said, alludes to the group’s style without imitating it.  

Meanwhile, on his own trip to Berlin, Sussman met with Dr. Peter Czada, a Comedian Harmonists enthusiast to whom the group had bequeathed all sheet music, letters, passports and other memorabilia after the war.

Neither Manilow nor Sussman knew what had become of the three Jewish members of the group until Manilow received a surprising telephone call from the Contemporary A Cappella Society, asking Manilow to present an award to the last surviving Comedian Harmonist some years ago. The nonagenarian, Roman Cycowski, had served as a cantor for 15 years at Beth Israel Temple in San Francisco before arriving at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs, where, at one point, he was the oldest active cantor in the United States.  

It turned out that Cycowski lived just four blocks away from Manilow, and when the musician knocked on his door during a media event to present the award, “Sure enough, there he was, in a wheelchair, but as soon as he saw the photographers gathered around, he went right back into being like George Burns,” Manilow recalled. “He said, ‘If the Nazis hadn’t destroyed our work, we would have been bigger than the Beatles!’ So, talking to him very much gave us a handle on the sparkle in his character.”

Even so, Manilow found the process of writing some of the songs to be emotionally devastating: “I had to sing the demo, and you can almost hear me blubbering through most of it,” he said.

When “Harmony” finally premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, the show’s creators were elated, then found themselves distraught in the 2000s, when a planned Broadway-bound production met its demise after a producer announced he couldn’t come up with the necessary capital. “All of us collapsed in one way or another,” said Manilow, who wound up in the hospital with heart palpitations. “Next to my mother dying, it was the worst experience of my life.”

And so, Manilow and Sussman put the musical in the drawer for five years — “until Bruce and I said, ‘We’ve got to make the pain stop,’ ” Manilow recalled.

So they cold-called the Alliance Theatre, which had a reputation for preparing musicals for Broadway, and were shocked when Susan Booth, the theater’s artistic director, answered the phone and said, “Gentlemen, please tell me you’re calling about ‘Harmony.’ ” By the end of an hour-long conversation, the show was booked to run at the theater in late summer of last year.

“After the conversation, Barry called me back and said, ‘What the f— was that?’ ” Sussman recalled of their joyful but stunned response.

Manilow and Sussman immediately began streamlining the production, cutting it by an hour, and found it sold out houses at the Alliance.

Then the Ahmanson Theatre came calling. Neel Keller, associate artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, had worked on “Harmony” when he was with the La Jolla Playhouse and wanted to help bring the show to Los Angeles.

“You can feel the creators’ passion for telling this story,” Keller said of why he was drawn to the show.  And “Harmony,” he added, “is a very personal way of looking at the huge, horrific events of the time period, but through a lens and characters you haven’t previously seen before.”

As for the creators, they insisted they are focusing on tweaking “Harmony” for its Los Angeles run, but not yet predicting a Broadway production.  

“I just want to see it one more time before I croak,” Manilow said.

For tickets and information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.