Review by Elyse Trevers
Barry Manilow’s show “Harmony” took 25 years to come to New York. First, it premiered at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Jewish Heritage Museum. Now a year and a half later, it has finally landed on Broadway.
Having always been a ‘Fanilow,’ I looked forward to seeing how the musical had changed, and I’m happy to report that it has gotten better.
Manilow wrote the music with Barry Sussman, with whom he has written 200 songs. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the show has a cast of wonderful singers. In the 1930s in Germany, there was a vocal group called The Comedian Harmonists consisting of six singers: 3 Gentiles and 3 Jews.
They performed comedy, sang songs, made records, and gave concerts. In one of the first scenes, the Harmonists are prepared to perform but learn their tuxedos were stolen, forcing them to wear waiter jackets and add comedy to their act.
Hence the addition of Comedian to their name. In the late 30’s, the group was extremely popular and performed internationally. Today one can even find their music on YouTube.
The six are played by a talented group of six performers, Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey.
Kornfeld plays the Young Rabbi, so named because he was studying in Poland to become a rabbi before he joined the group. The rabbi is also played by veteran Broadway performer Chip Zien, looking back as a now 87-year old survivor, recalling the career and decisions of the group.
He particularly regrets one crucial mistake they made by returning to Germany when they could have remained in the US. Not believing that Hitler would gain power nor that Jews would be led to their destruction, the group votes to return home.
A successful act, they had a privileged status that allowed them to travel. At first, the religion of three of their members made little difference and, in fact, the six men were considered ambassadors of the Reich.
But subtly they became satirical and critical of the regime while performing in other countries. Eventually, the group lost its privileges since half of them were Jewish. The group could continue to perform but without those three.
The audience shares the rabbi’s vantage of hindsight and we know what the young men do not – that Hitler will rise to power and that their lives as entertainers and as Jews will change. The rabbi bemoans their decision and in a lovely but very long piece called “Threnody” agonizes over their choice.
There are two featured women’s roles in the musical. Sierra Boggess plays the young rabbi’s non-Jewish wife Mary and Julie Bento plays Ruth, a Jewish activist who marries the non-Jewish singer Chopin.
The two women share a beautiful number “Where You Go.” When the two couples have a double wedding, it is interrupted by sounds of broken glass. (Kristalnacht) and inevitably the audience recalls the wedding scene and pogrom that ends Act I of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Some of the music is lovely and reminiscent of popular Manilow ballads and love songs.
In a couple of scenes, the audience learns how popular the Comedian Harmonists were. They accompanied Marlene Dietrich and performed with Josephine Baker. The performers are good, especially the experienced Zien whose pain and agony are touching.
The show is too long, and some songs drag on. Each time I thought a scene was over, it continued. Some of the music is derivative, and it’s almost impossible not to think of Les Miz or Fiddler during specific moments in the show.
Musical theater can entertain as well as instruct.
“Harmony” presents a piece of history that many of us may not know and a group that faded from memory. It’s difficult to ignore the present Middle East situation while watching “Harmony,” as anti-Jewish sentiment increases here as it did in Nazi Germany. One can only hope that we have learned from history.