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An early boy band was world famous — until the Nazis took over

Blake Roman, left, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters and Sean Bell in <em>Harmony</em>.
Julieta Cervantes
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Harmony
Blake Roman, left, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters and Sean Bell in Harmony.

Long before there were The Backstreet Boys or BTS, there was a boy band called the Comedian Harmonists. A vocal sextet in Weimar Germany, they were world famous — but once the Nazis rose to power they were silenced, because three members were Jewish.

Their story has now been turned into a Broadway musical called Harmony, with a score by pop superstar Barry Manilow.

A new musical

About 30 years ago, playwright Bruce Sussman, who had collaborated with Barry Manilow on the musical Copacabana, went to a screening of a film about the Comedian Harmonists "and endured three and a half hours of German documentary making with subtitles," he said. "And instead of being daunted by it, I was completely overwhelmed by it in the most positive way. And I ran to a pay phone and called Barry and said, 'I think I might have found the story we would like to musicalize.' "

Manilow had never heard of them but was immediately smitten by their sophistication. "They were a combination of the Manhattan Transfer musically and the Marx Brothers comedy," he said.

But the musical possibilities aside, the group's story made for compelling, stage-worthy material.

In the most chaotic time in history, three Jews and three Gentiles found harmony. They literally found harmony when the world around them was pulling people apart.

"They rose from impoverished street musicians to international celebrities almost overnight," said Sussman. "They were discovered in a little club singing on the same bill with Marlene Dietrich who was unknown at the time. ... They sold millions of records at a time when the recording industry was in its infancy. They made 13 films, performed in the greatest concert halls around the world. And 1933, Hitler comes to power, and some of our group members are Jewish. And how they confront their collision course with history is our second act."

"The beauty of it is that, you know, in the most chaotic time in history, three Jews and three Gentiles found harmony," said director/choreographer Warren Carlyle. "They literally found harmony when the world around them was pulling people apart."

Meeting the Rabbi

The show has gone through many iterations and productions over the years, but now, Harmony is framed as a memory play. The last surviving member of the group, a character known as Rabbi, speaks directly to the audience. He's played by Broadway veteran Chip Zien.

"The show is somewhat through the eyes of my character, but I also get to weave in and out of the action a little bit," said Zien. And, indeed, during the show he dons wigs and mustaches to become Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss, among other notables.

When he was working on Harmony in the 1990s, Barry Manilow actually met the real Rabbi Cyckowski , who turned out to be an elderly neighbor who lived just a block away from Manilow in Palm Springs, Calif.

"He was adorable," Manilow said. "He went right back to the vaudeville world. He said if they hadn't destroyed what we did, we would have been bigger than the Beatles!"

Manilow also met the Rabbi's wife, Mary. In the musical, she's played by Sierra Boggess. She's pragmatic and sees the problems the group is facing, as a Gentile, before they do. Boggess said the cast did research and spoke with a historian.

"And he said that the Jews in that time had too much hope and not enough fear," she said. "That's really stuck with me. And I wrote that on almost every page of each scene that I would start."

Danny Kornfeld is making his Broadway debut as the young Rabbi. He said he watched documentaries, read books and even traveled to Berlin to prepare for the role.

"I visited Rabbi and Mary's first apartment in Berlin, the apartment that they left, a potential synagogue that they probably got married at," he said. "So, it was really establishing my own sense of relationship to the city itself."

Always relevant

While the first act is fairly light-hearted, the second act brings the Nazi threat quite literally into the audience.

"When that particular officer walks down the aisle of the Barrymore Theatre, you know, the world has changed, because our room has changed," said director Warren Carlyle.

Harmony may feel especially relevant now because the world outside the room has changed. But, Barry Manilow said, unfortunately, the show has always seemed relevant.

"Every time we mounted the show, everybody would say, 'Oh, this is the perfect time for Harmony,'" said Manilow, "because it was always this anti-Semitism thing going on all the time, every single time. 'This was the perfect time for Harmony.' Well, of course, now it's very relevant."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.