Chip Zien Counts His Broadway Blessings in ‘Harmony’

“My character didn’t exist a year ago," Zien says of his role as the Rabbi in Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's long gestating musical. "It’s a real gift.”

Chip Zien in Harmony. Julieta Cervantes

“What do you have to do to get to Carnegie Hall?” the aspiring musical novice is always asking.

In the case of The Comedian Harmonists—a Berlin-based half-dozen who made their Carnegie debut 60 years ago this month—you simply close your ears to the growing Nazi noise around you and globe-trot your unique blend of jokes, gags, and six-part harmony to sold-out houses all over the world. 

For eight highly productive years on the world’s entertainment scene, this group sold millions of records, made dozens of films, and did backup for Josephine Baker in the Ziegfeld Follies.

The Comedian Harmonists were brought together in 1927 through an ad placed in a German newspaper. An aggregate of three gentiles and three Jews, this melodious six-pack figured a reckoning would happen in Berlin one day. That day came in 1935, and they disbanded, never to be heard from again. What happened is the gist of Harmony, a fact-based saga which just established a Broadway beachhead at the Barrymore.

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

It has music by Tony-Grammy-and-Emmy winner Barry Manilow, and his longtime collaborator, Drama Desk Award winner Bruce Sussman, who contributed the lyrics and book to the musical.

From the get-go, Broadway veteran Chip Zien has been very excited he was tapped to participate. Zien — the original Baker of Into the Woods — plays Rabbi, added as a narrator to the show’s production last year, when Harmony finally made it to New York after 25 years in development. 

Zien remembers when he first got a call from Barry Manilow. “I looked at the phone and thought, ‘How do you even know me?’” Zien tells Observer modestly. “He said they were workshopping a musical, trying to investigate and figure out how you integrate a new character into the plot. I call him My Rabbi Emeritus.” 

The musical was originally launched with a six-week run in San Diego in 1997 and was set to arrive on Broadway in 2004, but a shortage of funds and considerable rewriting necessitated a rerouting to other stops along the way (Atlanta in 2013, Los Angeles in 2014). When it got to town in April of 2022, it was still a long way from Broadway: at the National Yiddish Theatre Folkbiene in Battery Park.

It was another Tony winner, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, who inspired Manilow and Sussman to take a more vigorous swing at the storyline. When Carlyle came on board he suggested refocusing the narrative into a memory play which would flashback over the group’s various triumphs (Act 1) and tragedies (Act 2).

The sudden star emerging from all this last-minute, pre-Broadway script-crafting is Zien, who now pretty much dominates the proceedings. “They came up with this idea and created this unbelievable part for me,” Zien says. “My character didn’t exist a year ago. It’s a real gift.”

Zien spends most of Harmony narrating and tour-guiding through the ups-and-down of the Comedian Harmonists—then, later on, it turns out that he actually is a Harmonist, the last surviving member of the group: Josef Roman Cycowski, the cantor of the Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs. 

Manilow, it turns out, encountered Cycowski himself, before the cantor’s death in 1998 at age 97. Because the Grammy committee knew Manilow was doing a musical on The Comedian Harmonists, he was asked to present an award to Cycowski. Manilow agreed, then asked, “Where do you live? Israel? New York?’” Cycowski said Palm Springs. He and his wife, Marie, moved to California after the war, settling first in San Francisco and then in Palm Springs.

That fact amazed Manilow: “Turns out, he lived two blocks from my house. I was walking my dogs in front of his house all those years while I was writing songs for his character!”

Chip Zien and Danny Kornfeld backstage on opening night of Harmony on Broadway, November 13, 2023. Bruce Glikas/Getty Images

In Harmony the younger Cycowski is played by Danny Kornfeld, but Zien does have double duties. In addition to his role as Rabbi he provides cameos of the era’s celebrities: Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss, and conductor Fritz Kruger. “I love playing Einstein,” Zien says. “He has a line that invariably every night, gets applause: ‘The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil but by those who watch them and do nothing.’”

The final nail-in-the-coffin is Zien’s draining “eleven o’clock number,” “Threnody.” Alluding to “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, some call it “Rabbi’s Turn.”  He claims he’s “learned how to navigate the number so I can do it eight times a week” without a stretcher bearer to see him home.

“Our show, I think, has two themes in it,” Zien says. “One is there was this great group that existed in the ‘30s who sang in close six-part harmony—and we have these brilliant young guys playing those parts and dancing their fannies off and singing, and being hilarious as well. The other thing is—and I think it’s critical in understanding our show—The Comedian Harmonists witnessed the slide from democracy into fascism. Sadly, that’s what so relevant today.”

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Chip Zien Counts His Broadway Blessings in ‘Harmony’