HARMONY, Finally On Broadway — Review
Harmony has been a long time coming. Pop legend Barry Manilow and his collaborator Bruce Sussman have been chipping away at this new musical, which traces the quick rise and tragic end of German vaudevillian sextet the Comedian Harmonists, for 26 years.
What helped the duo “unlock” the piece, in their telling, was the addition of a narrator who guides audiences through the Harmonists’ story.
“Never heard of us, huh?” jokes “Rabbi” Roman Cyckowsky (Chip Zien), introducing the troupe with a dose of Borscht Belt understatement: “There’s a reason for that.”
Conjured here as the last surviving member of the Harmonists, the elder Rabbi (a nickname but, also, he really was one) mournfully recalls fateful decisions made by the group, three of whom were Jewish, amidst the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany.
The device lends Harmony structure and provides the invaluable Zien a rich, challenging role. But far from unlocking the Harmonists’ story, Rabbi’s narration feels awkwardly grafted onto an underdeveloped narrative, an attempt at forcing deeper relevance onto a work that hasn’t otherwise earned it.
Manilow and Sussman begin on firmer ground in the show’s first act, which traces the Harmonists’ formation and early success. Sussman’s book speeds breezily through introductions, establishing each member in broad strokes. “This Is Our Time,” a lively ensemble number, sets up a moment of optimism and sweeping cultural change. The younger Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld) serenades his love Mary (Sierra Boggess, in tremendous voice) with the rousing “Every Single Day” – no surprise that Manilow is adept at a love ballad. The style is formulaic, yet undeniably satisfying.
Manilow’s smartest compositions come in the group numbers which pastiche the Harmonists’ slapstick-infused comic style. Particularly charming is “Your Son Is Becoming A Singer,” a collective play-act of how the wealthy Erich (Eric Peters) might confess his secret musical passion to his parents. As the Harmonists “Yes, and…” their way through this imagined scene, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle’s lively work captures both the emergence of a form and the deepening of the troupe’s bond.
It is the romance between piano prodigy Edwin, nicknamed Chopin (Blake Roman), and fiery Communist Ruth (Julie Benko, fresh from Funny Girl) which proves the show’s first sign of trouble. Benko is instantly engaging, and Ruth gives voice to increasing political turmoil to which the Harmonists initially turn a blind eye. But the show simply has no room for her, leading to an unintentionally funny dynamic where Ruth is constantly arriving from, or exiting towards, a fistfight with off-stage fascists.
Ruth would seem the natural voice to wake the Harmonists up to the reality of encroaching authoritarianism, but that task instead bizarrely falls to Albert Einstein, who pops in following the Harmonists’ Carnegie Hall debut in 1933. One assumes that this unlikely encounter really did occur, but that does not make its place in the narrative feel any less unnatural. A quick appearance by Josephine Baker (an excellent Allison Semmes) feels similarly shoehorned in—a romance between her Erich is introduced as a gag, then never referenced again.
In addition to his task as narrator, Zien plays Einstein and other walk-on roles. With each quick change, the effect of Zien’s reappearances grows increasingly amusing. But while some of his cameos are intended comedically, others are decidedly not, confusing the show’s tonal balance as the National Socialists take power in Germany and begin making life more difficult for the Harmonists.
As Harmony moves into tougher territory, the broadness of its narrative becomes much harder to forgive. We can appreciate the significance of the troupe’s decision to return to Germany without Rabbi yelling “NO!!” as the curtain falls. As the Harmonists clash over how to meet rising censorship in overwritten shouting matches, it becomes evident how little we really know these characters as individuals.
Carlyle does do wonders with one ingenious second act number, “Come to the Fatherland,” a protest song condemning Germany’s cultural decline in which the Harmonists become marionettes tied to huge red strings, jerking to and fro, singing: “The Fuhrer has decreed/If you’re Anglo-Saxon/and your hair is Flaxen/We want you to breed!” But no context is provided for how the Harmonists, seemingly so divided around questions of resistance, would have come to perform this pointedly political number.
For all these issues, the last section of Harmony still packs a punch. The focus turns back to the older Rabbi, as he reckons with crushing guilt and the burden of memory. A devastating 11 o’clock number, “Threnody,” starts as Rabbi’s personal lament but grows into an elegy for all that was lost – every life, every story, all the hope and beauty snuffed out by unimaginable hatred. Zien embodies, in this number, a pain beyond description, and it is wrenching. How could it not be? Yet the searching depth of this finale cannot make up for a broadly unfulfilling work.
Harmony is now in performance at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City.