For a few glorious years, the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group that logically enough merged comedy and harmony — “they were a cross between Manhattan Transfer and the Marx Brothers,” Barry Manilow, the singer and songwriter, said — were internationally famous and wildly successful.
Starting in the late 1920s, they made movies, they filled theaters, and they went and they toured and they conquered.
And then Hitler came to power.
Half of the group was Jewish, which made it entirely undesirable. The way down was fractured and sad; all of the singers survived, which of course was a massive accomplishment, but their music died, and pretty soon the world’s memory of them died as well.
In 1997, a German filmmaker made a movie about the Comedian Harmonists. That film, also called “Comedian Harmonists,” did very well in Europe — according to Wikipedia, then-President Bill Clinton said that it was one of his favorites that year — but it didn’t do particularly well in the United States.
But some Americans saw it. One of them was Bruce Sussman, a lyricist and frequent collaborator of Barry Manilow’s — Mr. Manilow would write the melodies and Mr. Sussman would contribute the lyrics — who, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, was a Long Island Jew, born in 1949. Mr. Manilow was born in 1943, in Brooklyn.
Mr. Sussman presented the idea of making a musical about the Comedian Harmonists to Mr. Manilow, and they started to work on it. That’s how “Harmony” was born, more than 20 years ago.
Much has happened since then; the musical’s production originally was stopped by the September 11 terrorist attacks. The show was too dark, and there were no dark-skinned terrorists in it, for either fear or comic relief. So, for a while, that was that. “Harmony” was revived a few times, but it never really went anywhere.
The show is in previews at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, way at the tip of lower Manhattan; it will open on April 14 and run through May 8. It’s been rewritten to adapt to the present moment, although of course its story has not changed. As always, the Folksbiene balances between tradition and change.
Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the Folksbiene’s artistic director, had talked about bringing “Harmony” to the theater before, but those discussion had petered off. “But a few years ago I thought about it again, and I had Barry Manilow’s contact information, so I called him, and asked him if it was something that he still was interested in doing,” Mr. Mlotek said.
“And he said, ‘Well, it’s funny that you should ask.’”
Big-name Broadway producer Ken Davenport had bought the option for it, Mr. Mlotek said, “and he was looking for a smaller theater to try it out in New York first.” As it happened, Mr. Mlotek had exactly the right kind of theater at hand.
So the talks restarted, and “we ultimately made a deal where we would present it here, with Ken Davenport co-producing it, and meanwhile he got several other producers involved as well.
“We started reading it two years ago, and we did readings for invited guests, and we got excited about it.
“And then the pandemic happened.”
The pandemic still is not over, but for now it’s abated. All sorts of work on “Harmony” happened while everyone still was on Zoom, including auditions. And now it’s about to open.
“Harmony” is different from most of the Folksbiene’s other productions in that it’s in English, although, as he pointed out, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” also had been in English.
And “it’s huge. It’s the biggest production we’ve ever done. It’s bigger than ‘Fiddler.’” That’s the widely acclaimed Yiddish-language version of “Fiddler on the Roof” that the Folksbiene created, produced, and kept on stage for an unprecedentedly long time before it moved to off-Broadway, and was about to begin tours both in North America and around the world before the pandemic shut everything down.
It’s not that it has more actors than “Fiddler,” Mr. Mlotek continued; it has about the same number of people onstage. There are about 25 in the cast, and nine in the orchestra. But “it’s a bigger production, with more elaborate sets. They use a lot of projections, and it’s quite beautiful. Hundreds of costumes were created for it.”
Many of the people working on the production, both onstage and behind the scenes, are well known on Broadway. “We are blessed to have Warren Carlyle as director and choreographer.” Mr. Carlyle choreographed the Hugh Jackman “Music Man” that’s playing on Broadway now, as well as the pre-pandemic “Kiss Me Kate”; he won a Tony for choreography in 2014, as well as many other awards, for both choreography and direction. “He gathered a design team of Tony award winners and it’s quite a who’s who in the Broadway world.
“Our theater has never looked like this before.”
As for the content of “Harmony,” “It tells a unique story,” Mr. Mlotek said. I don’t know Manilow and Sussman’s level of observance, I don’t know to what extent they are practicing Jews, and I don’t think they’ve ever undertaken anything like this before. I don’t think they’ve written anything overtly Jewish like this before, and I find it compelling for that reason as well.”
The musical leaves audiences thinking; musicals don’t always do that, but Folksbiene productions do. “You’ll come away, I hope, with a sense of the historical moment,” Mr. Mlotek said. “Hitler’s Germany, prior to the atrocities, did a major destruction of what it called degenerate art. So here were artists who made hundreds of records and 13 movies and were popular all over the world.” But because some of them were Jewish, their work was devalued and then destroyed.
“That’s the serious takeaway,” Mr. Mlotek said. “But from the entertainment point of view, you will come away having heard a brand-new score by Manilow and Sussman, and wonderful performances.”
And then, of course, there is the knowledge of Ukraine “that hangs now over everything we do,” he continued. It hangs over this production too, and is on the minds of everyone involved with it.
“We just did a Purim show online where we contributed money to HIAS,” the agency formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “Everyone in the Jewish world and beyond is doing whatever they can.
“We Jews have always had a responsibility for our brethren,” he continued. “In my generation, that was the Soviet Jewry movement. Before that, my grandparents raised money for the refugees in Europe in the 30s. The world came together for the Six-Day War.”
But it’s not just about Jews.
“Now, when you talk to people of a certain age, they equate the Ukrainians with the Cossacks,” he said. “But we are talking about a different period. A different time. A different world. Ukraine has a Jewish president, and it has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world today. How can you not help them?
“And from a Jewish point of view, the scariest thing we can imagine is having a madman with so much power. Who knows what his intentions are?”
Everything ties together, he continued. “I think of my Yiddish ‘Fiddler.’ It takes place in Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem hailed from Ukraine.” Everything connects.
Zal Owen plays Harry Frommermann, who founded the Comedian Harmonists. He grew up in Westfield, and now he, his wife, and their baby live in Maplewood, along with “a ton of other actors and artists,” he said.
“Harmony” shows how “the group started to become famous — it took a little time — and then they became world famous. They toured Europe, and came to America.
“Act I is a Golden Age musical,” the kind of happy show where characters sing and dance and make the audience purr with content as the actors bumble their way to happily ever after. “It does have some dark spots. And then Act II has some comedy, but it’s darker, as they’re forced to stop performing.”
There’s a message to the show, Mr. Owen said, “like other works of art have. Perhaps different people will take it differently — it might be never forget, or hope or anger or sadness.
“It’s not just a story about the Holocaust. It’s about real people.” The show moves from period to period; the framing device presents it as the memories of the last of the troupe to die, as he reacts to the death of the next to last of them to go.
That’s played by Chip Zien, a Broadway regular who’s been the Baker in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and Mendel in William Finn’s “Falsettos.” He’s been on too many television shows to list.
Mr. Owen is young, but he already has an impressive list of credits. His Broadway debut was in “The Band’s Visit,” and he played Motel the tailor in national tours of “Fiddler,” opposite both Harvey Fierstein and Theodore Bikel, among many other parts.
He’s also deeply Jewish.
“I feel an obligation to tell this story,” he said. He’s not the direct descendant of a Holocaust victim or survivor, but some of his great-great-aunts and -uncles, who did not leave when his great-great grandfather did, were murdered by the Nazis. “Right before the pandemic, my father and I went to the town in Poland where my family came from,” he said. “I had an unbelievably powerful trip.”
That does inform the way he plays the role, he said. “The characters in ‘Harmony’ didn’t know where they were going when everything started going bad. The real people couldn’t have foreseen the actual horrors. I think that something I took from my trip, from having visited Auschwitz and Treblinka and Majdanek, is that it is happening now in the world. How did things get that bad? How did no one stop it?
“I know where my character would have ended up if he hadn’t left.”
Mr. Owen went to school at Solomon Schechter in Cranford; that school was folded back into Schechter in West Orange and then became the Golda Och Academy. His family belongs to Temple Beth Ohr in Clark, where his father, Howard Spialter, was president of the congregation, and his mother, Elise Spialter, was the president of the sisterhood. (His real name is Spialter; he took Owen, his middle name, for the stage because it’s far easier both to spell and to pronounce, he said. Zal is his full legal first name; it’s short for Zalman, which is his Hebrew name.) Both he and his sister, Kayli, were presidents of their USY chapter, and now he and his wife belong to Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
“We’re so honored to be able to tell the story of the Comedian Harmonics,” Mr. Owen said. “And at this theater, and to these audiences that are coming to see it. We are so honored.”
At an interview at the museum, sitting in front of windows that framed the Statute of Liberty, Mr. Manilow and Mr. Sussman both talked to CBS’s Peter Haskell. Mr. Sussman talked about how the film about the Comedian Harmonists made it clear to him that he had to write a musical about them. “I told Barry that this was the story we’ve been looking for,” he said.
“It was about the quest for harmony in the broadest sense of the word, in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history,” Mr. Manilow said. “And I said, ‘Let me at it.’”
“Their success was meteoric — they sang with Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker,” he continued. “And they were on a collision course with history.”
“We wrote the first act as a golden age musical, and then we deconstructed it in the second act,” Mr. Sussman said. “And this building, which was built as a place to encourage remembering — we knew we had the right place, and now we have the right time.
“People are telling us that it is resonating more than ever. It might be construed that we were writing it to the headlines, but it’s more the other way around. I wrote it years ago, and now the headlines are mirroring what I wrote.”
Information about tickets is on the Folksbiene’s website, nytf.org.