Barry Manilow’s longtime wordsmith, Bruce Sussman, can tell you exactly when he and the pop composer first crossed paths. “May 31st, 1972,” he said recently with a certainty not to be doubted. Underlining this emphatic fact, he added, “We’re approaching our 50th anniversary in a month.”
More than 200 songs have resulted from that meeting, including 1978’s “Copacabana,” a hit so big and lasting it blossomed into a musical in 1994, running for two years in London’s West End. But for half of their half century the pair has been writing and revising a deeply personal project: Harmony, their musical biography of The Comedian Harmonists. The show world-premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, and over the years there have been various versions at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater and Los Angeles’ Ahmanson.
It’s a 25th anniversary version of the show that is finally reaching New York. If the goal was ever Broadway, they’ve radically overshot the runway, landing in the Battery at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a production of the National Yiddish Theater Folkbiene, which staged the recent Jewish Fiddler on the Roof. Now in previews, it opens April 13 and will run until May 8.
Sussman clarified that Broadway has never really been the target, per se. “People are always talking Broadway. That’s for somebody else to figure out. Barry and I keep the blinders on. We put in 11 minutes of cuts last night. We’ve got some more going on today. Our focus is to make this show the best it can be.”
It’s a true story they tell. Three Jews and three gentiles come together, via a want-ad, in 1920s Germany and form The Comedian Harmonists, a phenomenally successful song-and-slapstick group. (“Think Manhattan Transfer meets the Marx Brothers,” advises Sussman) Act One tracks their success—millions of records, a dozen films, packed houses in prestigious concert halls around the world. Act Two finds them tragically paying the price for their ecumenical DNA.
“Harmony actually opens with the one week the group did in New York,” Sussman said. “They performed for the U.S. Naval fleet that was in the Hudson. They performed on one of the ships, and it was piped in to all the other ship. When they finished, all the ships sounded their horns, scaring everybody in Manhattan half to death. It was broadcast on NBC. Then, they did Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.”
The genesis of the project was a New York Times review of a documentary that caught Sussman’s eye. “It was a very compelling review and a beautiful photograph of six young men in white tie and tails, with their hair brilliantined,” he remembered. “The Public Theater used to have a screening room where they showed documentaries and art films, so I went down there and watched four hours of German documentary-making with subtitles. That should have put me off, but, instead, it was absolutely gobsmacking. I went straight to a payphone and called Barry and said, ‘I think I’ve found it. I think I’ve found the piece that we’ve been looking for to musicalize.’”
Despite his pop-tune turn-out, it happens Manilow always wanted to write for the theater, but success got in the way. “I always remind him how his pop career ruined that,” Sussman said.
True, Manilow affirmed. “I wanted to be an arranger like Nelson Riddle and a composer like Richard Rodgers—that’s where I was going. I did arrangements for Bette Midler, then commercials, then arranging for records and producing records. Never, never in a million years did I even consider being a performer. My big love was the Broadway musical, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
At the time of the initial Barry-and-Bruce connection, Manilow was making baby steps toward the legitimate theater. “When we met,” Sussman recalled, “he had already written a successful show called The Drunkard, which ran down at the 13th Street Playhouse for 110 years. I said, ‘Oh, I got myself a theater composer. This is what we were aiming to do—quite literally—then something called ‘Mandy’ happened. Barry went off on another path and dragged me with him.”
As a team, they song-write more like Rodgers & Hart (words first) than Rodgers & Hammerstein (music first). “When Richard Rodgers was asked which comes first, he said, ‘The contract,’ Sussman injected. If Manilow were asked that question, he said his answer would be, “The idea.”
“When I wrote the first draft of Harmony, there was no score,” Sussman said. “If I got to where I felt a song should go, I wrote a paragraph of stage direction which described the song. Maybe there was a title idea, maybe there was a phrase. I sent this enormous draft to Barry to see if he could make any sense of it, and he sent me back 17 melodies. Fourteen are still in the show.”
Sussman’s notes push the right musical buttons for Manilow. “They sing to me,” the composer said. “That’s why I like working with Bruce. They just sing to me, off the page. He writes so musically that it’s really easy. I mean, when he sends me ‘Her name was Lola UH/ She was a showgirl UH,’ you gotta be an idiot not to be able to put a melody to that. He writes as a musician would write. When I’ve worked with other lyricists, I don’t even know where the chorus begins. Where’s the verse? Is the chorus coming back? They just write and write and write, but Bruce writes music like he writes a scene. I hear it. It jumps right off of the page.”
Before beginning the show, both did an atmosphere soak in Germany. “When Bruce went to Germany, he actually saw one of those Beatlemania-like shows on The Comedian Harmonists,” Manilow noted. “I went to Germany on tour and stopped by a Tower Records store where I was shocked to see a whole wall was the catalog of The Comedian Harmonists. I didn’t really know that world of music, but in this Tower Records, they had what they call ‘the schlager parade’—the hit parade of every year, starting in the ‘20s and going to the ‘40s. The schlager parade of 1931 and the schlager parade of 1932—I bought every single CD, two shopping bags of CDs, and took them home. I studied what they were playing and how they were writing. That’s how I began, with the music. I was soaking in German music a full year before starting to write anything.”
Every incarnation of Harmony had a different director. Currently calling the shots is Warren Carlyle, a Tony-winning choreographer and an old friend. “Twenty-eight years ago, he was a chorus boy in our other show, Copacabana, at the Prince of Wales Theater in London,” Sussman said. “There was a big bolero number that ended Act One, and Warren was the lead bolero dancer. We knew his career was going to take off. He met Susan Stroman, became her assistant and then went out on his own and came to America. I’d bump into him all the time in the Broadway district and say, ‘Warren, we have to find something to work on together.’ And here it is. We finally did it. What’s great about working with Warren is there’s no getting-to-know-you. We knew each other for so long we already knew who we are, how we agree and disagree, so we hit the ground running.
“During the pandemic, Barry, Warren and I met every Tuesday and Friday. Because it looked like we were going to be out of work for a while, we decided to see what else we could come up with, try something new and bold and different, so we committed to doing a new draft. The big change was to put in Cantor Roman Cykowski and have him playing different characters as well.”
Because the Grammy committee knew that Manilow was doing a musical on The Comedian Harmonists, he was asked to present an award to Cykowski. Manilow agreed, then asked, “‘Where does he live? Israel? New York?’ They said, ‘He lives in Palm Springs.’ Turns out, he lived two blocks from my house. I was walking the dogs in front of his house all those years while I was writing songs for his character, and I didn’t know he was there. It was just too much!”
One thing all three collaborators agree on: Harmony is well placed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a temple of remembrance—and The Comedian Harmonists are men to remember.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated the day Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman met was May 1, 1972. It was May 31, 1972.