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Paulanne Simmons

Harmony Is a Musical about Discordant Times

Harmony: A New Musical
Directed by Warren Carlyle
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th Street
Opened Nov. 13, 2023
Tickets: harmonyanewmusical.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 18, 2023

Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Chip Zien, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, Zal Owen. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

"Harmony: A New Musical," with music by Barry Manilow, book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman and direction by Warren Carlyle, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, was presented at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta in 2013, moved to the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles and was produced in 2022 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

But given the impressive nature of its creators, it was always obvious the show was Broadway bound. And now it has at last landed. If Harmony shone off Broadway, on Broadway it is luminescent.

The story has not changed much over the years. The musical charts the career of the Comedian Harmonists, an all-male German singing ensemble that specialized in close harmonies.

The group formed between the two world wars when Harry (Zal Owen) took out a newspaper ad asking for singers. He ends up with Bobby (Sean Bell), who first answers the call; Erwin Bootz (Blake Roman), nicknamed Chopin because of his skills at the piano, until now on display at a local brothel; Ari Leschnikoff (Steven Telsey), a Bulgarian tenor whose nickname is Lesh; Josef (Danny Kornfeld), called Rabbi because he once studied Torah; and Erich (Eric Peters), a wealthy medical student who has all the right contacts (including Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss – both played by Chip Zien). The group calls itself the Harmonists

Soon the group is performing at international venues, including The New Ziegfeld Follies, where they appear on the same bill with Josephine Baker (Allison Semmes), who performs the musical’s more recently added number, “We’re Goin’ Loco,” and Carnegie Hall in December 1933, which is where the show begins. After their gig at the Barbarina Club, where they sing “How Can I Serve You Madame?” dressed in tuxes above their boxer shorts and aiming seltzer bottles at their tony clientele, they add “comedian” to their name.

But it is not their rise that sets the group apart. Rather it is the group’s end at the hands of the Nazis, who discovered that three of the group members were Jewish, that makes the story extraordinarily moving. The group’s situation is even more complicated because Chopin is married to Ruth (Julie Benko), a feisty Jewish radical, and Rabbi is married to Mary, a gentile woman he met in a tailor shop. The entire story is narrated as flashbacks by the elderly Rabbi (Zien), who is the only one still alive.

With Germany under the racist Nazi regime, every member of the group must make difficult decisions. Should they remain together, or should they split? Should they defy the Nazis? Should they submit? Despite the obvious risks, the group denounces Hitler and the Nazis in the satiric “Come to the Fatherland,” in which the Comedian Harmonists become human marionettes controlled by long red ribbons. One can’t help but think of songs like “If You Could See Her,” and “The Money Song” in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.

And how about the two wives? Mary, recalling the words of Naomi in the Book of Ruth, refuses to leave Rabbi, while Ruth must face the frightening and sad reality that Chopin’s fear of the Nazis may be stronger than his love for her. Ruth and Mary’s “Where You Go” is a beautiful ballad that raises the stakes considerably.

Manilow, who is best known as a composer of pop ballads, transitions to Broadway like a fish returning to its watery home. He has also faithfully incorporated the style that made Weimar cabarets famous. His music thrives in the hands of the excellent cast and director.

The history of the Comedian Harmonists demonstrates the difficulty of making harmony in a world filled with discord. It is a lesson well worth our attention.

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