Published in In Theater October 1997

We all know he “Writes the Songs.”   But for a book musical?   Pop perennial Barry Manilow was “Ready to Take a Chance” (after his 1994 West End endeavor, “Copacabana”) but “Even Now,” the future of “Harmony” is uncertain (though there are stage-whispers about New York interest).

Manilow and his long-time collaborator Bruce Sussman (book and lyrics) chose the La Jolla Playhouse for the world premiere of “Harmony” (through November 23), a terrific, tragic-but-true, rags-to-riches story of The Comedian Harmonists, six guys in 1920s Germany aptly described as “a cross between the Marx Brothers and Manhattan Transfer.” All they wanted to do was make music and make people laugh. But the world was crumbling around them, and ultimately, it came crashing down on their heads.

The Harmonists rose from starving street musicians to international entertainers, 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, 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 (if not well), a 96 year-old former cantor living in California. Rabbi is looking back, trying to piece together how it all fell apart, alternately beating his breast and reveling in his musical memories.

It all comes down to the harmony. The six voices (Burstein plus Mark Chmiel, James Clow, Steven Goldstein, Thom Christopher Warren and Patrick Wilson) 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. Sussman’s lyrics are urbane and clever.   But there’s no slam-bang show-stopper (no matter how many times and in how many languages they repeat the title song).   What ultimately gets to you is the story.   But the book needs some work.

Not enough time is taken to establish the characters or their relationship; they are mere caricatures, and we see more of their conflict than their camaraderie. The two female love interests are unevenly drawn; the Jewish one, Ruth (Janet Metz) is far more fleshed out than Rabbi’s shiksa, Mary (Rebecca Luker).   There’s no chemistry between Rabbi and Mary. She’s stiff and distant, speaking impossibly stilted lines; he’s obsessed with the group and his regret.  

One of the most touching numbers underscores the parallel but contrapuntal decisions of the two intermarried couples at the height of the Nazi threat. The women’s duet, “Where You Go,” with lyrics inspired by the Book of Ruth, is truly beautiful.       The humorous songs 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.

David Warren’s direction is inconsistent overall — frenetic in the first act, languorous at times in the second, but not always in the right places. The cast is bigger than it needs to be, and there isn’t enough choreography. The six male leads are agile, humorous and talented, but none is as strong solo as they are together, in tight melodic synergy. Luker, with her angelic, crystalline voice, seems under-utilized here. Metz, a lusciously earthy alto, has more to sink her teeth into, which she does with skillful ferocity.

The three-hour evening ends on a down-beat, a risky business in musical theater; the score doesn’t swoop you back up from the Nazi horror, like “Cabaret” or “The Sound of Music.”  

The metaphor for this show is finding harmony in an era of unbearable discord. The Harmonists clearly found their voice; “Harmony” still has a way to go.

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.