Harmony review – Barry Manilow’s Broadway musical lacks magic

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Harmony, a sort-of new Broadway musical from Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, opens with a German singing group called the Comedian Harmonists performing at Carnegie Hall in 1933. This is framed to the audience by former group member Josef Cycowski (Chip Zien), who goes by the nickname “Rabbi”. Now an elderly man, Rabbi introduces himself, then introduces an audition scene where the younger group members are first introduced to each other. It’s a lot of introductions for the opening 10 minutes of a musical, and it won’t be the last time that Harmony mistakes throat-clearing for ceremony. Perhaps the confusion is understandable; the musical has been on its way to Broadway for a quarter-century at this point, with Manilow and Sussman running versions of the show in San Diego, Atlanta and Los Angeles. (An earlier Broadway bid was canceled 20 years ago, and an off-Broadway production ran for a month in 2022 after several Covid delays.) The production that’s finally arrived feels like it’s had plenty of time to marinate in its own importance.

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The story of the Comedian Harmonists is a potentially interesting one, though Sussman’s book doesn’t necessarily make a case for the group, once globally popular, as unsung artists. Rabbi (played as a younger man by Danny Kornfeld), Lesh (Steven Telsey), Bobby (Sean Bell), Erich (Eric Peters), and Harry (Zal Owen), and Chopin (Blake Romin) meet as young men in 1920s Germany, forming a close-harmony ensemble that eventually seems to incorporate some elements of slapstick and double entendre – though the show is so relatively light on craft details and so wan in its comedy that it can be difficult to tell how seriously they were about comedy. (Each group member is introduced with a tepid joke – one went to medical school but can’t stand the sight of blood, ho ho!) The songs they perform in the show itself, with music by Manilow and lyrics by Sussman, are not from the group’s real-life repertoire. These tunes, and the show in general, suggest a cornier version of Cabaret, though the uptempo numbers are robustly performed by the six-man ensemble.

Of course, it’s the show’s job to make the Comedian Harmonists compelling to us regardless of our own taste or perception of their talent. What does their music actually mean to them, and what should it mean to us? Harmony is frustratingly opaque on this matter, seemingly eager to get to the serious Act II stuff, where fascism encroaches upon 1930s Germany. (None other than Albert Einstein shows up to warn our heroes about what’s coming.) Some of the group’s members are Jewish, as is firebrand Ruth (Julie Benko), wife to one and possible true love of another (perhaps giving away her status as a composite character). After a successful tour and an increasingly close collective friendship, the group is forced to choose whether or not to return to their native Germany – to bet, essentially, on whether the Nazis will escalate or fade away.

As the show increases its dramatic tension in the second half, it also diminishes its showmanship, with a handful of zippier performance numbers in Act I giving way to slow songs mostly sung standing and facing the audience. A couple of more memorable pieces – We’re Goin’ Loco, a Josephine Baker-led Ziegfeld Follies (which, given the show’s timeline and the facts of the real-life group, seems to be a semi-ambiguous fantasy) and the Nazi-satirizing Come to the Fatherland – do offer some exuberance in the midst of a long, sad march toward the inevitable. Mostly, though, the show is a maudlin affair, even before it starts to pull the Harmonists apart.

The dramatic strategy is personified by Broadway veteran Zien, who is supposed to be the picture of mournful wisdom, providing perspective on the events of his relative youth as he keeps the story of the Harmonists alive for future generations. Instead, his observations often feel like intrusions, throwing the show off-balance; they keep turning an ensemble story into a bathos-laden monologue, and infusing the story’s sadder moments with an awkward, actorly grandiosity. It doesn’t seem like a spoiler to note that at one point, Zien has to mournfully cry out “WHYYYYY?” as he chastises himself for not personally changing the course of human history. At this moment and others, Zien and the show are in perfect sync – they’re both working overtime to sell second world war horrors and regrets that much of the audience will intuitively understand.

Harmony isn’t without its pleasures or its insights. The production design from Beowulf Boritt features a versatile black-box-meets-hall-of-mirrors set that becomes equally convincing as the front or back of a nightclub, a Berlin alleyway, or a moving train, among others. The Harmonists sound great together, and there are moments where Sussman and Manilow entwine their personal and broader doubts and remorse with quiet heartbreak. But much of the show has all the signs of a would-be magnum opus allowed, over the course of so many years, to spin itself into a overworked tizzy.