When Harmony was presented at The Museum for Jewish Heritage in 2022, the musical had a few minor issues, but communicated its compelling story and ultimate message while entertaining. This iteration offers vastly increased presence of 85 year-old Rabbi (Chip Zien), the group’s sole surviving, guilt-ridden member, which keeps us from immersion in “the past as prologue.” Assuming multiple roles, formerly, to my recollection played straight, the actor now veers increasingly to borscht belt portrayals.
Don’t get me wrong, the indefatigable Zien sings, dances, and turns on an emotional dime clearly heading for a Tony nomination. Directed broadly, however, he seems suddenly treated with condescension. While a before-and-after awareness of political change is necessary, the production jollies up its first act to such a degree that by the time Nazis arrive, it’s possible to take the story less seriously – which is criminal. “Can your Rabbi do that?” the character asks (us) after a dance number.
Nor am I suggesting you forgo seeing the piece. Its story is one of culture, brotherhood, devotion, and a devastatingly topical example of what occurs when fascism and antisemitism go unchecked. Characters are engaging. Talent is wonderful; vocals gorgeous.
The real Comedian Harmonists – Public Domain, Bulgarian Archives State Agency
The real Comedian Harmonists, six German male singers from various walks of life, were internationally popular between 1928-1934. A wide repertoire modeled (from recordings) after the American group Revelers featured folk, classical and contemporary songs presented with deft vocal blending and a dash of wry, initially inadvertent humor. As the Weimar Republic gave way to National Socialists (the Nazi Party), the group’s survival became at first tenuous (they were considered decadent), then dangerous. Four members were Jewish, one married a Jewish woman. With liberties taken, this is their story.
1927 Berlin. Unemployed actor Harry (Zal Owen) advertises for five vocalists to form a harmony group on spec. He “hires” Lesh (Steven Telsey), a Bulargian waiter; Erich (Eric Peters), a medical student who’s squeamish about blood; Bobby, a comic opera bass; Erwin Bootz (Blake Roman), nicknamed Chopin by women in the whorehouse where he plays piano; and a former rabbinical student dubbed Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld) who left the Yeshiva hoping “to sing in a major key.” “God, I was gorgeous,” gushes his elder version. The group begins to busk, improving as we watch.
Julie Benko (Ruth) and Sierra Boggess (Mary)
Seemingly apolitical, Chopin is nonetheless romantically involved with Ruthie (Julie Benko), a rabble rousing, Jewish Bolshevik. Rabbi falls in love with Mary (Sierra Boggess), a Gentile who engineers their first meeting, converts, and goes on to provide levelheaded and loving commitment throughout. Both actresses have splendid voices and acting chops.
The Harmonists get a break at low end Club Cinderella, but are kept behind a curtain accompanying Marlene Dietrich – deftly manifest in an understated shadow silhouette. Next, they’re booked at posh Barbenna. When the group’s tuxedos are stolen, Harry decides they’ll perform in waiters’ jackets and boxer shorts, utilizing strategically placed wheeled tables and trays. The number was more amusing without the club owner and his date getting soaked in seltzer during an ersatz slapstick turn. “Comedian” is added to the sextet’s name. Success comes quickly. The group even has Nazi fans. Like a great deal of the population, they’re not yet worried.
Chopin and Ruth, Rabbi and Mary marry. I miss the stomping of wine glasses present in the downtown production, a reminder of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and that “as this glass shatters, so may our marriage never break.” In that version, the fractured sound was followed by an explosion indicating encroaching danger.
Chip Zien (Rabbi)
Recordings and a lengthy international tour ensue. We catch up with them at Carnegie Hall in 1933. Among celebrities they meet is Albert Einstein who renounced German citizenship, emigrated to the United States, and by 1940 would be an American citizen. The professor is shocked they’re unaware of the gravity of what’s occurring back home. Ruth, who remained behind to protest, thinks things are going “their” way, a radical misconception. Einstein suggests The Harmonists may not have a home to which they can return.
They vote. A splashy, gratuitous (new) Ziegfeld Follies number – with captivating Allison Semmes as Josephine Baker (the group recorded but never appeared with her) – replaces a simpler method of spotlighting 85 year-old Rabbi’s looking back with horror on his not having spoken up. The group returns to a different Berlin. They’re heckled, then threatened. Jewish members are a liability.
Allison Semmes (Josephine Baker) and The Harmonists
Nazis banned (or destroyed) the work of Jewish artists in all fields declaring it Entarte Kunst = degenerate. The artists’ mental, physical and moral capabilities were labeled “in decay.” In music, Jewish composers like Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler were condemned. Jazz and swing was edited or barred citing solos, drumbeats, and scat as being “negroid influenced.” The preceding avant-garde 1920s pushed boundaries. National Socialists’ taste seemed to differ, while in truth, it was the race or ethnicity of artists that determined categorization. The Comedian Harmonists were culpable on both fronts.
The group was spared incarceration (or worse), deemed of service as “international goodwill ambassadors.” A scathing, satirical “Come to the Fatherland,” during which the Harmonists present themselves as giant marionettes, is their reaction to being used. The Reich takes note. Rabbi recalls a second opportunity he didn’t take that might’ve drastically changed things. He lives in a hair shirt.
Splitting up is the only way to survive. How do The Harmonists acquire money, papers? How do they manage logistics while being watched? Where do they go? What about Ruth and Mary? A last performance is announced. The men know they’ll never see one another again. “Then the unspeakable…” Elder Rabbi delivers a wrenching epilogue telling us what happened to each man and woman.
Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Chip Zien, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, Zal Owen
Actors playing the six Comedian Harmonists are all multi-skilled thespians. with outstanding voices. Each is given distinctive passages with which to manifest personality. As young Rabbi, Danny Kornfeld is both believable and sympathetic and oh, he can sing! Blake Roman’s’ Chopin (think James Dean) goes from happy-go-lucky to convincingly agonized.
Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle excels at both arts. Caveats: A couple of musical numbers could successfully be shortened and too much joking waters down credibility.
Barry Manilow’s music is notably more theatrical than what we expect. Only a couple of songs and the detrimental engorged Ziegfeld number resembling “Copacabana” remind on of their popular source. Stroner influence of Weimar melody/tone would’ve added authenticity. Still, most of what we hear works fine in context. This is not simply a yeoman like job. Vocal Arrangements are terrific.
Video by Batwin and Robin Productions is newly, chillingly employed in a Big–Brother-is-watching-you like manner. Lighting (Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer) is a marvel, taking into account wrangling reflections to serve the show. Costumes (Linda Cho/Ricky Lurie) are period perfect. Hair and wigs (Tom Watson) for ancillary characters seem meant to evoke laughter with exaggeration which does the show no favor. Sound design (Dan Moses Schreier) is pristine.
For those intrigued: the book – Comedian Harmonists: Six Stories by Douglas Friedman
The Comedian Harmonists– an excellent 1977 German documentary, can be streamed on Amazon
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: Sean Bell, Eric Peters, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Steven Telsey, Blake Roman
Music – Barry Manilow
Lyrics & Book – Bruce Sussman
Vocal Arrangements – Barry Manilow & John O’Neill
Music Director – John O’Neill
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street