New musical explores boy band during Nazi rise
Barry Manilow brings musical talents to local stage.
He writes the songs that make the whole world sing. And he’s the voice behind them as well: “Mandy,” “Copacabana” and dozens more. Now Barry Manilow is collaborating with the Alliance Theatre for the company’s 2013-2014 season opener, “Harmony – A New Musical,” taking the stage early next month.
“Harmony” is the true story of what could be the first boy band extraordinaire: The Comedian Humorists, composed of six young men in Germany in the 1920s. They sold millions of records and starred in films. But three members were Jewish and as anti-Semitism grew, the group fell apart. Nazis eventually disbanded them.
Manilow is surprised that the band is relatively obscure to today’s audiences.
“They were huge in Europe, all over the place, but we didn’t know about them,” he says. “They were the Manhattan Transfer (of their age). They knocked us out.” He compares their humor to that of the Marx Brothers.
The fine line in “Harmony” is creating a musical with a great score (almost 20 songs in all) but with a darker subject — and not making it overly morose. Manilow is quick to point out that this isn’t a Holocaust musical. “It ends in 1935,” he says. While Manilow is handling the music for the production, his longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman is responsible for the book and lyrics. The Atlanta gig is directed by Broadway veteran Tony Speciale.
Manilow and Sussman were in town recently for rehearsals and are pleased with what they are seeing.
“It is going great,” Sussman says. “It’s been thrilling; it is going to be a spectacular show.”
Sussman read an article about the Comedian Humorists and soon after saw the documentary about them. He knew he had a project. The musical was first produced back in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif.
The upcoming Atlanta show is the first staging since, although there have been attempts to do it elsewhere. When Sussman and Manilow were looking around for a regional theater to re-stage it, people kept on mentioning the Alliance. They called and found a welcoming home.
“Harmony” has been tightened since the 1997 production. The first act is much shorter, Sussman says. He refers to it as a new vision.
Both men feel “Harmony” is especially relevant for LGBT audiences.
“Who wouldn’t relate to six friends in trouble creating beautiful music in a terrible time?” Manilow says.
Sussman believes “any group in the shadows or that have been in the shadows” can empathize with the characters. During the course of the musical is the rise of national socialism and the tracking down of gays and lesbians, he says.
After the Atlanta engagement, the musical will travel to Los Angeles. Beyond that, where it goes is anyone’s guess, although Sussman and Manilow certainly would not be opposed to taking it elsewhere.
For now, though, “our blinders are on; we’re only thinking of this production,” says Sussman.
Although they love the pop songs that made Manilow popular, the two realize that doing a stage musical takes a good five years to produce. Previously, the two worked on a stage version of “Copacabana” together, as well as a few films.
The secret to a 41-year working relationship, both men feel, is knowing how to collaborate — knowing that it’s okay sometimes to make a fool out of yourself and try new things until it all clicks.
Getting a one-week extension is Serenbe Playhouse’s “Hair,” the ‘60s rock musical that closes out the company’s three-show summer season.
Brian Clowdus, the openly gay artistic direc- tor of the company, is directing this version, as well as filling in for the role of Berger this weekend. In his hands, “Hair” is beautifully executed, with an ensemble cast that rabidly tears through the material.
It’s one of the best local musicals in recent years. If you haven’t seen it, do so before it closes.
‘Who wouldn’t relate to six friends in trouble creating beautiful music in a terrible time?’ asks pop legend Barry Manilow (right), who collaborated on ‘Harmony – A New Musical’ with longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman.