In 1991, Broadway lyricist Bruce Sussman saw a documentary by director Eberhard Fechner that prompted him to run to the nearest payphone and tell his writing partner, Barry Manilow, they must create a show about a forgotten 1920s ensemble called The Comedian Harmonists. That six-man German vocal group, which toured the world until being disbanded and dispersed by Nazi activity in 1934 (three of its members were Jewish), was the hottest thing going on the international music scene. Yet, today its story is little known -- even among music aficionados.
Manilow and Sussman are hoping their hummable new collaboration will bring the German singers' story to the mainstream. After more than a decade of rewrites, soft starts and business snafus, the pair will open Harmony -- A New Musical, at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre on September 6.
The musical is "adapted for the grasp of a 2013 audience," but inspired by the unique talents of The Comedian Harmonists, Manilow told me during a recent interview. "They were the Backstreet Boys of their time."
Manilow is quick to point out that Harmony "isn't a show about the Holocaust," although it contains references to "the approaching storm" of German oppression in the mid-1930s, says Sussman. The show instead focuses on the high drama within the personal lives of the group members, their love interests, travels, and friendships with other famous artists of the day.
Sussman describes Harmony, directed by Tony Speciale (a veteran of off-Broadway productions such as Classic Stage Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Bebe Neuwirth), as "a sweeping book musical that visits 28 locations" featuring "original numbers and presentational songs" he co-penned with Manilow (the pair is famous for their 1970s hits, "Copacabana" and the theme song from "American Bandstand").
For authenticity, Speciale picked cast members whose ages matched those of the actual Comedian Harmonists (ages 21-27) at the time of their debut in 1927. Both Sussman and Manilow are impressed with the Harmony cast, which includes Will Blum (Book of Mormon), Chris Dwan, Shayne Kennon, Will Taylor (42nd Street), Douglas Williams, and Tony Yazbeck (Chicago), along with Leigh Ann Larkin and Hannah Corneau in the primary roles, and an ensemble filled with Alliance and Broadway veterans.
The singing, Manilow says, "is beautiful." Like the original Comedian Harmonists, Harmony's cast has real chops. "Those days, there was no such thing as autotune or 'punching in,'" he says.
There's comedy, too. Sussman adds that a "transformative moment" in the musical -- and one he hopes will be an audience favorite -- happens when the sextet of performers "first realize that they're funny."
As for staging Harmony's latest debut in the South (John Mellencamp and Stephen King brought their musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County to the Alliance in 2012), Sussman says he's reminded of a conversation he once had with Sheldon Harnick, lyricist for the 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof: "He told me if Fiddler succeeded, it could run for three years in New York, based on the Jewish audiences in the Northeast," Sussman says. Of course, the musical went on to become the first Broadway show to surpass 3,000 performances. "What they didn't anticipate was the universality of it," he says of Fiddler on the Roof. The same is true of Harmony, he believes: "We don't have to cater to any audience, whether we do it in the South or the Northwest, it makes no difference."
Harmony's Sept. 6-Oct. 6 stint in Atlanta will be a proving ground for future plans (the musical will head to L.A. next with no definite dates scheduled for a New York run -- yet), and its creators are too seasoned to boast of grand schemes for Broadway. Yet, if the "fanilows" come shining through, maybe's there's hope?
"I think I can count on my loyal fans to get us started," Manilow says,"But this show is going to have to stand on its own. We have to rely on Harmony as a musical."