KPBS AIRDATE: October 22, 1997
MUSIC, up: “Harmony”
First, there was harmony. That’s the whole premise and metaphor of the Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman world premiere musical: People finding harmony in an era of unbearable discord.
“Harmony” tells a terrific, touching, tragic-but-true story, about six guys in 1930’s Germany. All they wanted to do was make music and make people laugh. But the world was crumbling around them.
The Comedian Harmonists rose from starving street musicians to international entertainers, singing with Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, meeting Albert Einstein and making a smashing U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall. In eight meteoric years, they appeared in a dozen movies and sold millions of records, with their eclectic repertoire of songs in multiple languages and styles.
But they ran aground of the Third Reich. Because three of the Harmonists were Jewish, the Nazis disbanded the group and destroyed all their work. Manilow and Sussman have spent six years trying to retrieve the music, research the background and tell the story.
It’s framed as a memory play, narrated by Rabbi, the sole survivor of the sextet — who, by the way, is still alive (though not well), a 96 years old living in California. Rabbi is looking back, trying to piece together what happened, how it all began, how it all was lost, what he could have done to avert disaster — alternately beating his breast and reveling in his musical memories.
It all comes down to the harmony. The six voices blend magnificently, a capella or with the energetic backup band. The vocal arrangements are breathtaking and the singing itself is heart-breaking. But the score is a little disappointing.
There are 19 songs, though it seems like more, and a few could go. Manilow artfully captures the era, and the Harmonists’ broad range, from jazz to jitterbug, novelty numbers to pop and politics. Bruce Sussman’s lyrics are urbane and clever. But there’s no slam-bang show-stopper, no melody you go out humming and can’t get out of your head. What ultimately stirs you is the story. But the book needs some work.
There isn’t enough time taken to establish the characters or their relationship. We see more of their conflict than their camaraderie. The details of their career take precedence over characterization and credible interactions. The two female love interests are unevenly drawn; the Jewish one is far more fleshed out than Rabbi’s shiksa. And sadly, there’s no palpable chemistry between Rabbi and Mary. She’s stiff and distant, speaking impossibly stilted lines; he’s wrapped up in the group and his regret.
One of the most touching scenes features the parallel but contrapuntal decisions of the two intermarried couples at the height of the Nazi threat. Partly a problem of text and partly of direction, there’s insufficient build-up and an abrupt departure, but the song, with lyrics taken from the Book of Ruth, is truly beautiful.
MUSIC: “Where I Go”
The humorous numbers are fun, from the bawdy “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” to the politically satiric “Come to the Fatherland,” with its darkly comic staging, the men as marionettes controlled by enormous Nazi hands. The real Harmonists never would have gotten away with this one, but it’s a nice fantasy.
David Warren’s direction is inconsistent — frenetic in the first act, taking its time in the second, but not always in the right places. The cast is bigger than it needs to be, and though the choreography is inventive, there isn’t enough of it.
The harmony is what you remember and what these guys do best. They’re agile and humorous and talented, but none is as strong solo as they are together, in tight melodic synergy. Though Danny Burstein is funny and charming as Rabbi, he’s not charismatic enough to carry the show. Rebecca Luker, she of the angelic, crystalline voice, seems under-utilized here. Janet Metz, a lusciously earthy alto, has much more to sink her teeth into, which she does with skillful ferocity.
The three-hour evening ends on a real down-beat, always a risky business in musical theater. And though you may be moved, I think it’s less by the songs or the show than by the remarkable story and the ineffable harmony.
MUSIC out: “Harmony”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.