On September 6th, Barry
Manilow and his lyricist partner Bruce Sussman debuted a fully-realized production of a musical 20 years in the making. That show is Harmony, which depicts the rise and fall of the
Comedian Harmonists – a six-member male singing group in Germany (half Jewish,
half non-Jewish) who reached the height of success in the 1920’s and 30’s by
blending complex harmonies with physical comedy.
I wrote about Manilow and Sussman’s creative process for Tablet Magazine. (Please note that I had nothing to do with the headline.) Below is a longer excerpt of my conversation with them. Read on for their remarks about inspiration, Jewish humor, and writing a score that sounds nothing like a Barry Manilow record.
Thinking about this period in Jewish history – Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s – it’s really a study of the great contributors to science and the arts. It was the age of Kafka and Mahler and Freud. I would love to hear your thoughts about how the setting of Harmony creates the dramatic backdrop for this musical.
Sussman: It was one of the things that appealed to us most. That this is the period of Kurt Weill and Einstein and all of these amazing people who ultimately fled. And here we have this group of Jews and gentiles facing that decision of what to do.
Manilow: Maybe it was in the water or something because they were all at the top of their creativity.
Sussman: It was a petri dish of creativity. We had a [Holocaust] survivor come speak to the group the other night. She survived on the Kindertransport. I had done some homework and I found that on the Kindertransport, a total of 10,000 children, 4 of them went on to win the Nobel Prize. When the normal ratio is 1 out of 200 million. There was something in the zeitgeist that just inspired brilliance. And the irony is, that was antithetical to the whole national, socialist movement.
What I find so interesting is that Jews in pre-war Germany, unlike Jews elsewhere in history, had a real nationalistic pride. They wanted to be German. Do you think that American Jews watching this show get that tension between country and identity?
Sussman: We do have a narrative character whose drive centers on that question. When Ruth, my survivor friend, spoke, we spoke about the Anschluss [the annexation of Austria into Germany.] On March 11, 1938, she was an Austrian, and on March 12th, she was a Jew. So it’s there, it’s in the writing and we’ll see how many people get it.
Is this the first project in both of your careers that has a specific link to Jewish heritage?
Manilow: Yeah. This is one in a million. It’s all about the project. We went after a project that spoke to us.
Sussman: And people had approached us to write scores for their shows. And we went to several meetings and ultimately said, “If it’s gonna be a five year journey, it has to speak to us.”
Manilow: The only one that comes close is Fiddler on the Roof.
Sussman: Fiddler broke the glass ceiling about Jewish themes on Broadway. I remember Sheldon Harnick [the lyricist on Fiddler] said to me, he thought the Jews of the metropolitan area would keep it open for three years. What he didn’t anticipate is that it would speak so universally to Koreans and Italians and Japanese.
Right, it tapped into tradition as a whole ethos.
Sussman: And that was a late discovery on their part. It was Jerome Robbins who said, “Ah, I know what this show is about”, and the show was already up at that point.
Manilow: It’s interesting because Bruce and I need that before we start…what we’re writing about.
Sussman: The first thing we put down was, “This is a show about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history.” Everything flows from that.
Had you not been inspired by the documentary [about the Comedian Harmonists], do you think you would have pursued something else about history or Jewish identity?
Sussman: Well, I’m a history buff. So, history – yes. Jewish – if it’s the right story. The Jewish stories tend to appeal to me the most. I was actually exploring another project that I thought wouldn’t have a Jew in it, and I researched and got to a critical point, and suddenly there’s a big old Jewish theme. And I said, ‘Well, I guess it’s just going to be there for me wherever I turn.
Manilow: And you know this is not a Holocaust musical. A lot of writers have gotten that wrong.
Sussman: Right. Obviously there are references and allusions to it, but this takes place in the approaching storm.
It’s interesting that all six members of the Comedian Harmonists survived the war and some went on to really prosperous careers. Does that lend a more bittersweet tone than what might be assumed to be a tragic one?
Sussman: Yeah, the whole narrative is seen through the eyes of one character. We’re looking from the vantage point of the one who lived the longest, Roman Cycowski. He happened to be the most successful in putting the pieces of his life back together, but he also carries a burden, and a fair degree of survivor guilt. So it is that tension that we’re exploring. There’s a bittersweet quality for him about remembering.
I’d love to hear about the score and the musical styles you drew from.
Manilow: I started by studying what they did. They only had about 20 recordings at the time. And they were great, they knocked me out. And they were funny. And they were jumping around and still in tune.
Sussman: I remember vividly when I sent you the first CD, and you were in your car driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, and you flipped out and called me on your car phone.
Manilow: And that’s the thing: how come we didn’t know this? That’s the point of our diving so far in. Because they were the first, they were the architects of the kind of group singing that we love so much today. How come we didn’t know them? So after I studied them, my job was to write an authentic sounding score that didn’t sound like a Barry Manilow record that paid tribute to the time and place. This was a style of music that I had never even thought about let alone written. So, it was about a year before I even put a note down.
Sussman: He immersed himself.
Manilow: I immersed myself so deeply into the 20s and 30s. I actually found the Nazi marching band theme. Creepy as it was, it was brilliant. And Bruce helped me to study the classical music that came out of that world. When I went to Germany to do a concert, I found the Shlagerparade [the hit albums of German pop music]. And I bought all of them. That’s where I began, immersing myself in the style of music that the public was listening to during those years. It’s really quite a score. I’ve never written anything like it. I think that if you didn’t know that I wrote it, my name would be the last name you would think of. It’s great to go that far. I was without a net.
Sussman: Which is the best way to fly when we’re writing.
Thinking beyond the productions coming up in Atlanta and L.A., does Broadway still feel like the destination?
Manilow: All I really care about is to see our play up again. I hope the audience likes it because I like it and Bruce likes it. And…what did Oscar Hammerstein say?
Sussman: Yeah, on the opening night of Oklahoma!, Oscar Hammerstein took a walk with his wife and said to her, “I really hope the audience likes it because this is what I like, and if they like it, I get a chance to write more."
Manilow: So this is where we’re at. I hope they like it, but it wont change my feeling for it. And where it goes, we’re not even thinking about it.
Photo courtesy of the Alliance Theatre