A Jewish/Gentile Boy Band in 1920s Germany, Resurrected by Barry Manilow

In his musical 'Harmony,' the legendary crooner tells the captivating tale of the Comedian Harmonists. Director Tony Speciale gives Haaretz the scoop.

Los Angeles – Consider all the harmonizing boy bands that have made masses swoon over the years, from the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys to the reigning princes, One Direction. Before them all, there was the Comedian Harmonists, a German sextet made of half Jews (including a former rabbi) and half gentiles (one of whom married a Jew.)

Formed in 1927, they quickly shot to fame throughout Europe with their brand of improbably tight vocal harmonies mixed with vaudevillian physical humor. But their rise was cut short by Hitler’s own, and the group was forced to disband in 1935.

Largely forgotten, their story has been brought back to life in the new musical “Harmony,” running through April 13 at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, thanks to an unlikely champion: the legendary crooner Barry Manilow, who wrote the show’s 1930s-inspired music.

It’s been a long road for “Harmony” – over 20 years, in fact. Bruce Sussman, the show’s lyricist and a longtime collaborator of Manilow's, came across the Comedian Harmonists through a 1991 documentary. He then showed the material to Manilow, who was equally enthused.

“Harmony” premiered in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse but subsequent productions, including a planned Broadway run in 2004, never got off the ground. That was until last fall, when the show was resurrected in Atlanta ahead of its L.A. engagement. It has met with largely positive reviews; Broadway is again in sight.

In 2012, director Tony Speciale joined the creative team. Though “Harmony” was his first big musical (most of his work has been with plays, specifically Shakespeare) he clicked immediately with Manilow, Sussman and the tale of the unique boy band.

Speciale spoke with Haaretz about discovering the Comedian Harmonists, working with a pop icon and what the future holds for “Harmony.”

Had you been familiar with the Comedian Harmonists before the show? What drew you to the story?

"I had heard of the Comedian Harmonists but really didn’t know much about their amazing history until I started research for the production. However, I had heard some of the songs from “Harmony” on Barry’s “Scores” album and found them very moving. I also love the period of the 20s and 30s and have a particular fascination with Weimar Germany."

What surprised you about this story? Why do you think it’s worth telling now?

"I wasn’t surprised as much as I was taken by how young these men were when they achieved stardom. The group was together for eight years, and their ages ranged between 21-27 years old when they first met. To think how meteoric their careers were is kind of mind blowing to me.

I love discovering and dramatizing lost chapters of history and forgotten stories. As a culture, we look back on moments in history to try to make sense out of the chaos in hope that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. I think this is what makes “Harmony” so universal and compelling.

I also think people are drawn to it because it’s a tribute to an incredibly courageous group of individuals. It’s proof that the work you do and the choices you make (big or small) can leave a profound impression on others, long after you are gone."

What scene in the show do you find most powerful?

For me, the most powerful moment is the final song “Stars in the Night.” It’s the moment when our protagonists are faced with the realization that they will never see each other again. It’s the final song of their final concert and it’s beautiful, painful and ironic with just enough glimmer of hope. It’s the moment the Comedian Harmonists become immortal.

What was your collaboration with Manilow and Sussman like?

Barry and Bruce are both very passionate about “Harmony” and their commitment to telling the story and to honoring the Comedian Harmonists is fierce and inspiring.

They have incredible instincts and are not afraid to take risks, which I admire. They also have a wicked sense of humor, which makes the collaborative process fun and unpredictable.

What impressed me most about the score is that I found it so muscular. It’s epic. It soars. But it’s also very intimate and nuanced. And it’s period-specific. That’s a really hard balance to achieve.

What was unique or particularly special about the experience of “Harmony?”

Working with legends like Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman was obviously very special. Also, this is my first big musical…. Musicals are unlike anything else. The way they flow physically, how one transitions from dialogue into song, how you visually tell the story. It was all uncharted territory for me and I loved it."

What are the next steps for the show?

"Honestly, I’m not sure. I know Barry and Bruce have been meeting with commercial producers. Fingers crossed. It would be so nice to have another crack at it."

AP