What explains the intermittent but enduring appeal of the Comedian Harmonists, a male sextet that flourished in Weimar, Germany? Largely forgotten until the 1970s, the band spawned tribute bands, inspired plays and movies, and obsessed pop star Barry Manilow.
The Harmonists’ unusual fusion of precise harmonies and ancient humor made them famous. But their newfound popularity owes much to the symbolic resonance of their history. Three Jews and three non-Jews, they played together, with great success, until the German Nazi regime separated them. Neither their friendships nor their music recovered.
Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin contains architectural voids representing the sudden absence of Jews from German life. The disappearance of the Harmonists – first from concert stages and then, for a time, from historical memory – is an example of this. And the tributes paid to them and their work spring from the same redemptive impulse as the proliferation of Holocaust museums, memorials and memoirs.
The latest iteration in the Harmonists’ story — nearly three decades in the making — is “Harmony: A New Musical,” presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City through May 15. Mr. Manilow, the show’s composer, praises the “unique inventiveness” of the Harmonists. His longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, who wrote the book and the lyrics, was intrigued by what he calls “the quest for harmony in what turns out to be the most discordant chapter in human history. “.
The Harmonists’ saga seems particularly poignant because of the frothy charm of their music, a counterpoint to the political and economic turbulence of their time. Even in their 1928-35 heyday, they were a throwback, as much vaudeville as cabaret.
The Comedian Harmonists titled a concert “Between Brahms and Blues”, describing an eclectic repertoire that included popular music, folk songs and opera, sung bravely in German, French and English. The group’s Jewish founder, Harry Frommermann, whose talents included the imitation of an entire orchestra, was inspired by an American jazz quintet, the Revelers.
In formal wear or elaborate costumes, the Harmonists recorded chart-topping albums, made films, sold out European concerts, and recorded American radio shows. High-ranking SS officers who were fans of them protected them at the start of the Third Reich. But in 1935, faced with exile or dissolution, the group broke up, the Jewish trio (including the second tenor, Erich Abraham Collin, from a baptized family) left Germany.
From there, the story becomes more convoluted, tragic, and, for decades, mostly obscure.
Mr. Sussman came across it at a 1991 New York screening of a German TV documentary, “The Comedian Harmonists: Six Life Stories.” In the 1976 film, director Eberhard Fechner interviews the four surviving harmonists: Robert Biberti, the bass who later helped design Nazi rockets; Erwin Bootz, the versatile pianist who shared arrangement duties with Frommermann; Ari Leschnikoff, the tenor of Bulgarian origin renowned for his high notes; and Roman Cycowski, the Polish-Jewish baritone who became a famous cantor in California and lived to be 97.
Fechner’s elegiac documentary begins with Frommermann’s first wife, Marion Kiss, breaking down in tears as she reminisces about the band’s glory days. It shows the old harmonists singing with their records. Fechner films the men in alternate tight close-ups, allowing us to imagine them together. But he also recounts their bitter disputes over money and politics.
After their separation, the Jewish and non-Jewish harmonists each recruited new members and performed separately until 1941. Frommermann, who returned to Germany as an interpreter at the Nuremberg trials, was heartbroken without the harmonists and did not couldn’t resist trying to recreate them. .
Joseph Vilsmaier’s award-winning 1997 German feature, “The Harmonists,” used vintage recordings and brought to the fore the rivalry between the strong-willed, business-minded Biberti and a moving Frommermann. The film, in turn, sparked a German musical piece and a tribute band. A jukebox musical, “Band in Berlin,” with American tribute band Hudson Shad, had a brief Broadway run in 1999.
The Manilow-Sussman musical debuted in 1997, at the La Jolla Playhouse. The show played in Atlanta and Los Angeles in 2013-14, but attempts to bring it to New York failed. The current production, directed and choreographed by Tony Award winner Warren Carlyle, features Broadway veterans Chip Zien and Sierra Boggess.
“Harmony” takes some dramatic liberties, including turning pianist Bootz into a sixth singer and compressing the men’s complex romantic lives. Like the feature film, the musical focuses on the contentious relationship between Biberti, who tries to appease influential Nazis to keep the group afloat, and Frommermann, revolted by pimping. The show asks how best to respond to evil and whether love between Jews and Gentiles can survive in an atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred. The parallels to Kander & Ebb’s era-defining musical, “Cabaret,” are inescapable.
In a pandemic rewrite, Mr. Sussman crafted a new narrator: Rabbi, an older Cycowski, played by Mr. Zien. Like the Harmonists with their records, Rabbi interacts with his younger self, warning about the decisions that led to the band’s disbandment. Only the realization that memory itself can be a blessing allows him to get rid of a tormenting regret.
Both in this epiphany and in the dynamism of its six young Comedian Harmonists, the show captures the bittersweetness – the brilliant music, the dark story – at the heart of the group’s appeal.
-Mrs. Klein is the literary critic for the Forward and a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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