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HARMONY - National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

As war once again rages in Europe, arriving at the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) in New York is a musical about a nearly forgotten group of German singers and comedians from Berlin in the 1920s whose destinies were changed by World War II. With a musical score by pop-music impresario Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by his long-time collaborator Bruce Sussman, a most engaging HARMONY tells the tale of the Comedian Harmonists who found international acclaim with their signature blend of sophisticated vocal harmonies and comedic stage antics as club and concert performers, followed by huge success in recordings and in dozens of German films (none of which survive). Some of the group of six, or their wives, were Jewish, which put them on a collision course of history.

NYTF, the world’s oldest continuously producing Yiddish theatre group, is staging the musical in the solidly renovated theatre in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in the Battery, the most southern tip of Manhattan. For the NYTF, “Harmony” follows its commercial success with a Yiddish version of “Fiddler on the Roof”. (“Harmony” is in English.) For Manilow and Sussman, “Harmony” is a labor-of-love; it first appeared in 1997 at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, one of the premiere regional theatres in the US.

HARMONY is directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the hottest choreographer on Broadway (currently, “The Music Man”, before that “Hello Dolly”). It’s presented as a memory play by Rabbi (Chip Zein) one of the six young singers, who looks back as an octogenarian, retired and living in California. Zein, a veteran of dozens of Broadway musicals and dramas (most famously, he originated the role of the Baker in the 1978 original production of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”) is perfect for the part. So, too, is the young Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld, of superb voice), who cannily looks like a younger version of Zien. Besides the dramatic heft of playing Rabbi, Zien has a lot of fun with the part, playing variously Albert Einstein, composer Richard Strauss and even Marlene Dietrich, all of whom wandered through the sextet’s career at some point.

The play opens at the height of the Harmonist’s international success - a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1933. Rabbi’s memory starts with the group’s formation in Berlin in 1927, and visits the highlights of the group’s personal lives, their marriages, their creative struggles and disagreements. All the while, the backdrop is the rise of the Third Reich. The group’s fork in the road comes in New York where they have an opportunity to be contracted by NBC Radio; instead, they return to Germany. Rabbi never forgives himself for not convincing his friends otherwise.

Manilow’s score is really quite good, often gorgeous, distinctively better than many original scores on Broadway these days. The 2 and half hour show has about 20 songs; the ten-piece orchestra is fine, with music arranged by Manilow. The singing is sensational. The sextet’s comic antics are best displayed in the saucy “How Can I Serve You Madame?. Other musical highlights include an elegiac solo. “And What Do You See” by Young Rabbis’ wife Mary (Sierra Boggess, who played the title role in “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway). Manilow’s big production number in the style of his biggest #1 hit, “Copacabana”, opens Act 2 where the boys join Jospehine Baker (Ana Hoffman) in the splashy “We’re Goin’ Loco” in the New Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. And there is dark satire in “Come to the Fatherland”, lampooning the Fuhrer, that the Harmonists performed in Copenhagen but which got them into deeper disfavor with the Nazis. It’s Carlyle’s most original choreography, with the singers as puppets, recalling musical numbers from Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” and “Chicago”.

Ultimately, the Reich denied the Harmonist’s exemption to perform even with Jewish members, and the group dispersed. All singers survived; one of the Jewish wives disappeared. The aging Rabbi laments the loss of harmony; we, as Jew and Gentile, lived and worked in harmony he muses. A stirring finale, “Stars in the Night”, reminds that as strife still abounds, so, too, must we continue to hope.

This was written for publication in the German magazine BLICKPUNKT MUSICALE


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