Once upon a time there was an internationally famous and fabulously funny German group who wanted to teach us how to live in harmony, but the time wasn’t right for people to listen. The Comedian Harmonists were an all-male close harmony ensemble who were broken apart by Nazi Germany and with Barry Manilow’s music and Bruce Sussman’s lyrics, their story is told in “Harmony,” now playing at the Ahmanson.
The musical has had a rocky road. It originally debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse, but financial problems kept it from going to Broadway in 2003. In 2005, Manilow and Sussman won back the rights to the musical in court. “Harmony” the premiered at the Atlanta, GA Alliance Theater last fall (6 September 2013 to 6 October 2013). The Ahmanson production is presented with the Alliance Theatre.
Now in Los Angeles, “Harmony” is not just a feel-good story, but also a history lesson about Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. While “Cabaret” was based on true stories and gave a British-American view of Berlin–outsiders looking in, “Harmony” is about Germans and Jews from the inside as some members become outsiders.
Although the program tells us these men were Germany’s Beatles (and remember the Beatles did go to Germany and the Ahmanson has actually had that story on stage “Backbeat.”), but let’s give the movies credit where it’s due. A four-hour documentary produced by Eberhard Fechner was shown on German TV in 1977. Fechner interviewed the surviving members in 1975. The documentary led to a revival with a re-release of their recordings. In 1997, another movie, this time a feature film “Comedian Harmonists” was released with the actors lip-synching to the original recordings. From that film came a musical play in the same year. That, of course, was in German.
None of the six members is living today. The last living member, Roman Cycowski died in 1998 at 97 in Palm Springs.
The musical “Harmony” opens in 1933 as the group ends a performance at Carnegie Hall New York, then backtracks to 1927 so we can see how these six men (Ari Leschnikoff, Erich A. Collin, Harry Frommermann, Roman Cycowski, Robert Biberti and Erwin Bootz) got together in Berlin and then follows their rise to the top, ending with their performance at Carnegie Hall in 1933. Although Frommermann (Matt Bailey) formed the group, the story is told from the perspective of Cycowski, nicknamed Rabbi (Shayne Kennon). When we circle back to 1933 and Carnegie Hall, this time we go backstage where the group meets Albert Einstein (Brandon O’Dell).
The subject of Germany is broached. Einstein senses things were darkening, but the group decided to return. Bobby (Douglas Williams) believes that things will blow over. Although the group formed in Germany, they included a Polish member (Frommermann), a Bulgarian (Leschnikoff) and three of the members were considered Jews (Frommermann, Collin and Cycowski) and one, Bootz, was married to a Jewish woman. Bootz, here called Chopin (Will Taylor), isn’t the only member married. Rabbi is by this time married as well to Mary (Leigh Ann Larkin). The transition from girlfriends to wives is also touched on in Act 1.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and in 1934, after the death of the president, named himself the Fuhrer. In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws are passed. Because of their popularity, The Comedian Harmonists get special privileges, but that doesn’t last long and the decision is made to split up. They perform one last time together in 1935 before Harry, Rabbi (Shayne Kennon)and Lesch (William Blum) flee to Vienna. They never perform together again.
Although the fifth scene in the second act “Threnody” is a bit too melodramatic that’s easily forgiven. The Ahmanson ensemble deftly directed by Tony Speciale and the action flows easily from comedy to tragedy. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is full of funny little bits that make for a vibrant big picture. As the famous sextet, Bailey, Blum, Kennon, Chris Dwan (Erich Collin), Taylor and Douglas Williams (Bobby Biberti) have strong voices that blend into seemingly effortless harmonies.
“Harmony” is a musical with style and substance, a lovely musical with a light touch in its history lesson. If this musical doesn’t make you melancholy and wish people could live in harmony and fill you will regret for lost lives and lost opportunities resulting from World War II and other wars, then you’ve missed the point. What generations have missed is this delightful story and I’m glad that Manilow and Sussman were finally able to bring this production to the stage. Manilow and Sussman also have “Copacabana–The Musical” to their credit, but one wishes for less legal entanglements and more musicals from this pair.
“Harmony” opened 12 March 2014 and continues at the Ahmanson until 13 April 2014. For tickets and information, visit the Center Theatre Group website or call (213) 628-2772.