10 minutes of Harmony more emotional than anything I’ve seen on stage
Jewish Telegraph, April 2022
WHEN it is time to eulogise Barry Manilow — hopefully in the very distant future — there will be plenty of references to his pop music career with such hit songs Bermuda Triangle and Mandy.
And, as a footnote, there may be a mention that he wrote the music for the incredible show Harmony, set in the 1920s and 30s.
Yet, this is actually his finest achievement and, once it makes it on to a bigger stage, could change the way people view him.
While most of the media focus will be on Manilow, who was present when I saw the show on Tuesday, let’s not forget his co-creator Bruce Sussman, a veteran of writing musicals.
They previously collaborated on Copacabana The Musical, but it’s fair to say the subject matter was nowhere near as serious as Harmony.
The amazing trick of Harmony is the way it lures you in with a funny and lighthearted first act before the tone takes a turn for the worse after the interval.
Performed by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, it tells the true story of the Comedian Harmonists — a singing group of three Jews and three non-Jews who found worldwide success before falling foul of the Nazis.
Narrated by the sole survivor Rabbi (Chip Zien), it starts with the six members of the group getting together — Chopin (Blake Roman), Lesh (Steven Telsey), Harry (Zal Owen), young Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld), Erich (Eric Peters) and Bobby (Sean Bell).
The first act is full of laughter and great routines, especially as the six make their debut at the Club Cinderella in 1929 supporting Marlene Dietrich, played by . . . well, I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.
You can feel a sense of foreboding throughout the first half, yet that’s put to the back of the mind as the Comedian Harmonists blow everyone away in performances around Europe.
The wedding scene, set at a Berlin synagogue in 1931, is incredibly powerful as Rabbi marries convert Mary (Sierra Boggess) and non-Jewish Chopin weds Jewish Ruth (Jessie Davidson).
As they stamp on the glasses at the end of the ceremony, the sound of breaking glass can be heard around them as antisemitism runs rampant in Germany.
The first act ends with Comedian Harmonists performing at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1933.
They receive a call from home telling them how bad things are becoming, but they eventually vote to return to Germany — despite narrator Rabbi imploring them to stay — as the situation won’t last.
The second act ramps up the emotion, especially considering the venue for the musical. Seeing an actor sitting in full Nazi uniform in the auditorium of the museum — which is described as a ‘Living Memorial to the Holocaust’ — was incredibly powerful and maybe even quite hard to bear for older members of the audience.
At first Comedian Harmonists were given special licence to continue by the Nazis, but soon pressure was being put on them to get rid of the Jews.
The final 10 minutes were probably the most emotional I have ever witnessed in a theatre as older Rabbi explains the fate of all the members and their wives.
Anyone hoping for a truly happy ending will be sorely disappointed, but thankfully Manilow and Sussman didn’t decide to sugar-coat the finale.
The star of the show was undoubtedly veteran actor Zien, who played quite few roles, but was award-worthy as narrator Rabbi, especially during a scene where he implored his younger self to kill Adolf Hitler during a true encounter.
While Zien stole the show, there was not one performer who failed to captivate. As could be expected from Manilow and Sussman, the songs are also pretty special. No matter how good the acting and story, it’s the songs that move it to a new level . . . and Harmony truly delivers on that score.
And it was apt that the venue is situated in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants found safety from persecution.
After its month at the Jewish museum, it would be good if it could move a couple of miles uptown to Broadway, where it deserves a big audience. Even better would be if it moved over the Atlantic so British audiences could learn the story of this brave group of singers.