Review: Barry Manilow Writes the Songs That Make ‘Harmony’ Sing

The story of the Comedian Harmonists—the German (and Jewish) singing sensations forced to break up due to the Third Reich—is told in this amiable if derivative musical.

Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Chip Zien, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, and Zal Owen (from left) in Harmony. Julieta Cervantes

Harmony | 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. | Barrymore Theatre | 243 West 47th Street | 212-239-6200

Describe Barry Manilow’s musical gestalt, briefly. Mellow, romantic, soft rock with lush arrangements, echt-1970s easy-listening radio . . . someone called Mandy who gave without taking? That’s not brief; it’s a mouthful. Also a mouthful? The name of the male vocal group at the center of Harmony, Manilow’s first musical on Broadway. They’re the Comedian Harmonists, which our narrator, Rabbi (Chip Zien), admits will “bend your dentures.” If the chunky name’s unfamiliar to you, Manilow and book writer/lyricist Bruce Sussman, do their damnedest to drive their show’s title into your brain.

“Harmony / We sing in harmony,” a synchronized sextet of young men in tails croon at the top of the show, and you’ll be fairly sick of hearing about their “har-mo-nee” before the end of the extended introduction showing the band’s formation, with hasty pencil sketches of each member. The music is derivative (jazzified Joplin), repetitive, easy to remember—and lacking in personality. What else would you expect from a singer-songwriter who, in addition to writing or recording numerous creamy Top 40 hits such as “Copacabana” and “I Write the Songs” also composed commercial jingles, most famously McDonald’s “You Deserve a Break Today.” Manilow never met an earworm he didn’t happily thread on a hook.

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If Manilow’s oeuvre is slight but hugely popular, his present subject is heavy and relatively obscure. Six singers with a dreamy blend and lots of vocal tricks became famous in Weimar Germany for their lighthearted lieder, toured the world, then were forced to break up due to censorship laws in the Third Reich. Three members of the Comedian Harmonists were Jewish and rising antisemitic persecution in Germany would test the bonds of the Harmonists’ friendship, even as it shattered their careers.

The boys in the band are attracted by a newspaper advertisement in 1927, placed by Harry (Zal Owen), an arranger and orchestrator who wants to form a distinctive singing group. He corrals Bulgarian high tenor Lesh (Steven Telsey), rich-boy aesthete Erich (Eric Peters), a pianist nicknamed Chopin (Blake Roman), opera bass Bobby (Sean Bell), and the baritone Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld), the younger version of the present-day narrator played by Zien who addresses the audience. These dapper songbirds have varied temperaments which clash just enough for laughs and tension, but not enough to endanger the ensemble. That’s what the Nazis are for. In America to play at Carnegie Hall in 1933, the fellows find themselves at a crossroads: stay in the U.S. and wait out Germany’s fascist turmoil or return to Berlin? 

Allison Semmes as Josephine Baker (center) and the company of Harmony. Julieta Cervantes

There’s a bit of a focus problem in Harmony, probably the result of trying to broaden the narrative scope—bringing in history to make it about more than just a band’s rise and fall. It ends up robbing individual Harmonists of deeper treatment or more time to develop group chemistry, despite amusing novelty numbers. Besides providing context and exposition, the wry, twinkly Zien (the original Baker from Into the Woods) dons various wigs and facial hair as walk-on caricatures: composer Richard Strauss gives the boys a big break; Albert Einstein visits them backstage at Carnegie Hall. (Zien does not, thankfully, step in for a cameo of Josephine Baker; that role is vibrantly filled by Allison Semmes.) For romantic sparks, Sussman includes a couple of b-plot interfaith marriages: between Chopin and his politically outspoken Jewish wife Ruth (the plucky Julie Benko), and Young Rabbi and the sensible seamstress Mary (Sierra Boggess, golden-voiced). With six putative leading men, most are inevitably shortchanged on depth. Rabbi and Chopin make the biggest emotional journey with their wives; Harry and Erich conceal secrets of a romantic and religious nature, respectively; Bobby is career-driven; and Lesh likes to party. All charming fellows, but the musical doesn’t put much flesh on their bones.

Julie Benko and Sierra Boggess in Harmony. Adam Riemer

To tag the endeavor “Jersey Boys, but with Nazis” would be too reductive, but there is a definite resemblance to the earlier piece, with its emotional foundation of bromance and showbiz, its arc from underdogs to stars and enduring friendship. But then, Harmony (which has been in development since 1997, the same year a German movie on the same subject was released) evokes several other musicals. A solemn anthem called “This Is Our Time,” in which Ruth marches against fascism sounds like an outtake from Les Misérables. Benko and Boggess mingle their lovely sopranos in an elegiac farewell ballad (“Where You Go”) that has a touch of Fiddler on the Roof about it. And, of course, the spirit of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret hovers over the whole proceedings—which itself channeled Kurt Weill, German folk, and jazz of the Weimar era. Still, if the overall score comes across as generic, it has been elegantly arranged by Manilow and orchestrated by Doug Walter. 

To be honest, I slightly dreaded this one, after suffering through A Beautiful Noise a year ago. But although Manilow and Neil Diamond share similarities—Jewish soft-rockers big in the ’70s with kitschy afterlives—Harmony aims higher than jukebox navel-gazing. A story this compelling could have made a good musical—with less narration, more character development, and a finale that milked the nostalgia less. Needless to say, a tale of innocent people caught in a nauseating wave of antisemitism hits harder in our present moment. Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle skillfully weaves the elements together and gets the Harmonists—a handsome six-pack of triple threats—on their feet and dancing. Lovable tummler Zien gives his all to a self-recriminatory 11th-hour number about failing to save the group—call it “Rabbi’s Turn.” You might leave humming the title tune, but also unsatisfied. Well, he wrote the song.  

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Review: Barry Manilow Writes the Songs That Make ‘Harmony’ Sing