Broadway’s Next Great Jewish Musical
With original music by Barry Manilow, “Harmony” may be remembered as the most important Jewish show since “Fiddler.”
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Ever heard of The Comedian Harmonists?
If you haven’t, you can’t be blamed. Though the half-Jewish sextet was once the toast of pre-war Europe, its tale has largely remained in the shadows. But that was before “Harmony,” a remarkable Broadway show with original music by Barry Manilow, began taking the stage eight times a week.
Largely set in a Germany veering toward Nazism, “Harmony” is the most prominent original Jewish musical since “The Band’s Visit” six years ago. In fact, if producers’ efforts are successful — and I hope they will be — “Harmony” may be remembered as the most important Jewish show since “Fiddler.”
Six Berlin singers (three Jewish and three Gentile) gained world fame in 1927 for pioneering close harmony singing, a type of performance in which all parts except the bass lie close together and are confined to the compass of a tenth.
The group sold millions of records when the recording industry was still in its infancy, appeared in 13 films, and performed around the world, including in New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Eight years on, the Nazis shut the group down — and with it, their “degenerate” music. (No need to steel yourself for a mournful ending. The Harmonists were disbanded in 1935, relatively early in the Nazi era, with all six surviving the war.)
Over 25 years, Manilow and his longtime lyricist Bruce Sussman have woven this tapestry from threads of history, humor, and heartache. The narrator, played by Chip Zien, is an aging former member of the Harmonists lovingly dubbed “Rabbi” not because he’s a clergyman (he’s dating a gentile) but because he had once attended rabbinical school.
Be prepared: This is not a “jukebox musical.” Instead, it’s a book musical for which Manilow composed more than a dozen all-new songs that echo the spirit of the era. They’re terrific, especially the title number and the romantic “Every Single Day,” sung by Rabbi’s younger doppelgänger to the woman he loves.
And (older) Rabbi’s stirring 11 o’clock number, “Threnody,” was acted as much as sung, a thoroughly captivating performance. (A threnody is a song of lamentation.)
Manilow crisply defined the show’s appeal when he told The New York Times he considered the Harmonists “a combination of The Manhattan Transfer and the Marx Brothers, with complicated harmonies — and funny as hell.”
“Harmony” masterfully dances on the tightrope between historical gravity and theatrical levity. The show unfortunately skimps on the group’s original comedic acts, which means we don’t experience their heady heyday quite the way international audiences once did. But the show we do see never takes itself too seriously; even the group’s hard-to-say name faces some good-natured ribbing.
Zien’s droll Yiddish inflections are another source of humor. So as Rabbi might ask: “Nu, how Jewish is this show?”
Well, attendees with Jewish backgrounds could possibly recognize Yiddish phrases, Hebrew prayers, and Jewish rituals that others may miss. But there’s nothing here that would alienate anyone.
And inclusion is in fact one of the show’s themes. Poignantly, two women in interfaith relationships discuss their attitude toward conversion in a song called “Where You Go.” It forms an explicit commentary on the pledge of loyalty to the Jewish People in the Book of Ruth — which is in fact the name of the Jewish woman in that duet.
She’s a fiery activist, passionately played by Broadway shooting star Julie Benko. Her marriage to Chopin, a non-Jewish member of the group, highlights the complexities of Jewish identity during that era.
But it’s the struggle with antisemitism that drives the show. “Harmony” raises very timely questions about the reasons for Jew-hatred and the roles Jews and gentiles play in each other’s lives. Perhaps because the show resonates deeply with today’s news, the North American Jewish community is starting to pay attention to the musical, its significance, and its messages.
I spoke with lead producer Ken Davenport about the show, and it’s clear that marketing to the Jewish community is an important part of his team’s strategy. For example, the producers disseminated Florida rabbi Michael Simon’s recent sermon praising the musical as “terribly moving” and celebrating the fact that the show’s casting had “actual Jews play the Jews.” They also held “Harmony” events for Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah.
And indeed, many Jewish theatergoers are saying “Harmony” hits close to home. I asked Michelle Blaer, a 41-year-old descendent of Holocaust survivors, how the show affected her. She said she loved the musical, but:
“I had a visceral reaction that I rarely get — and I see a lot of shows. I felt so many emotions. It just hit at a personal level given my family history. A lot of Jewish people have always had the thought in the back of our heads about if and when we’d need to escape from our countries and where we could go. That fear is heightened now with the increased antisemitism, and it made the show feel more relevant and emotionally stirring.”
Ross DeHovitz, a 65-year-old physician from California said that as a Jew, he also connected to “the recurring stories of persecution” Jews have faced and the anti-Semitism “that continues to this very day.”
The show has even become a kind of landmark for some Jewish audience members.
Seventy-year-old Pennsylvanian Jeff Beck expected to hate “Harmony,” given its rocky history and one-time superstar Barry Manilow’s status as a “sort of cultural joke” within certain circles. But he admits he was wrong, has seen the show three times, and now thinks about “Harmony” and its music all the time.
But lots of non-Jews have said they enjoy the show as well. Christine Chen, a 27-year-old New Yorker who recommends the show, acknowledges “some details” in a wedding scene she didn’t follow, for example, but said being a non-Jew did not impact her enjoyment: “I felt like I could really empathize with the situation the characters were in.”
Joan Harrigan, a theater fan from Maine, said she was “blown away” by the show’s story, performances, and score, describing the tears in her eyes at the end of the show. She said she would gladly see it again. Of course, even some fans of the show had reservations; one patron who found the show meaningful nonetheless complained of its “clumsy” story that he called “a bit dark.”
The path “Harmony” took to Broadway faced repeated delays, with a canceled run in 2004 and regional productions in San Diego, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. An off-Broadway production last year was buzzworthy, garnering enthusiastic critical and audience reactions.
The Broadway reviews have been more mixed: The New York Times called it “operetta on LSD” and Variety called the characters “schticky.” But the show seems to have found an audience; since its Broadway opening on November 13th, the show has attracted more than 50,000 attendees and grossed more than $5 million.
While the musical’s messages of interconnectedness and resilience are for everyone, “Harmony” is likely to have a particularly long life in the Jewish community, whose members can expect their great-grandchildren to still be singing in “Harmony” at camp and Hebrew school for generations to come.
And that’s a good thing. L’chaim.
David Benkof writes The Broadway Maven’s Weekly Blast.