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Homesocial-and-lifestyleAll things in Harmony

All things in Harmony

Barry Manilow is superstitious. Such a statement may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the 80-year-old pop legend's career, with decades of hits, endless Las Vegas residencies and international fame as a still-smooth crooner who wrote the songs that made the whole world sing.

Yet, there is one thing Manilow has always pined for that now inspires some irrational fears — a Broadway show.

For nearly 30 years, that goal has proved tantalisingly out of reach despite a labour of love. Harmony, a musical he composed with his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, the lyricist who also wrote the show’s book.

Harmony, which follows the unlikely story of a sextet of 1930s singing and vaudevillian stars — the Comedian Harmonists, torn apart by the rise of Nazism and World War II — is now running at the Ethel Barrymore ­Theatre. Barring, of course, some cosmic catastrophe that both Manilow and Sussman joke about. Sort of.

“We keep thinking the theatre is going to get hit by a tornado,” Manilow joked over lunch in midtown Manhattan in September after their first day of rehearsal.

Sussman, 74, laughed along: “It’s got to be something.”

Barry Manilow, right, and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman at the Barrymore Theatre in Manhattan, on Sept 7.

Not to jinx the opening, both men offer a kinahora — a Yiddish locution meaning “no evil eye”. It’s a dash of dark humour that is not completely unfounded, considering the tortuous route that Harmony has taken from page to the Barrymore’s stage. Sussman first conceived of the show in the early 1990s after seeing Eberhard Fechner’s 1977 documentary about the Harmonists in New York.

“I came out of there and went to a phone booth on Lafayette Street, and I called him and I started babbling away,” Sussman recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m in’. ”

Both men were immediately intrigued by the story of a popular singing group (they had played Carnegie Hall, for instance, in 1933) that was destroyed by — and lost to — history. Half of the group was of Jewish descent, and the Nazi takeover of Germany would eventually silence them.

But the urge to compose a musical was also deeply seated in Manilow, who says he was never interested in pop music as a child in Brooklyn, when he was already a precocious musician, playing accordion and piano.

“It wasn’t interesting enough for me,” Manilow recalled of pop. “I didn’t know what was on the Top 40. I was into jazz and Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. I was into classical music. And I was into Broadway scores.”

“You can either write, ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’,” Manilow said of his masterful Top 40 songcraft. “You go any further than that, you’re writing a Broadway song.”

Despite his superstardom — and yes, probably because of it — Harmony did debut at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 1997, but got mixed reviews and failed to transfer. Still, interest in the show continued to percolate, including in 2003, when an out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia — before a planned Broadway run — suddenly evaporated when financial backing disintegrated.

More iterations followed. In 2013 and 2014, the show had runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle recognised the two men for their score. Again, producers expressed interest in Broadway, but deals fell apart, something Sussman seems remarkably measured about.

Barry Manilow at the Barrymore Theatre in Manhattan, on Sept 7. EVELYN FREJA

“The gauntlet that a new musical goes through, every step can be the end,” he said. “You do a reading, it’s over. You survive the reading, you do a workshop, it’s over. You survive the reading and you go to a regional and it’s over. And we all know shows that I’ve done that have died at one of those steps. We never did.”

Manilow was a little less sanguine about the process. “I put it in the drawer many times,” he recalled. “It was so heartbreaking every time it didn’t make it.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, however, Sussman and Manilow started to “kick the tyres” on the show again with Warren Carlyle, the British director and choreographer who won a Tony Award in 2014 for his work on After Midnight and was nominated for Tonys for his work on the revivals of Kiss Me, Kate (2019) and The Music Man (2022).

One possible turning point in the show’s luck, Carlyle said, was the addition of a narrator character — an older rabbi played by Chip Zien — who walks the audience through the various eras of the show.

“It was massive,” he said. “For me as director, it unlocks the whole show because previously it was kind of a six-headed dragon. You know there were these six guys. They all have wonderful stories. They all have rich lives. And I just didn’t know who to follow and I didn’t know how to focus the show.”

To solve the problem, Sussman suggested splitting the existing role of one of the Harmonists in two. In addition to his younger self, the show would also include his older self, a rabbi, serving as a narrator. “And suddenly for me, it was like, now the story has a point of view,” Carlyle said.

Following that work, the show was staged in 2022 at the Museum Of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial To The Holocaust, where audiences — and critics — seemed to respond in ways that they hadn’t before. Writing in The New York Times, Elisabeth Vincentelli praised the songs “crafted in a defiantly classic mould”, which steer the show back to “solid emotional ground”.

She also noted the creative team’s ability in “balancing the shifting moods, which is no easy feat because they must shuffle broad humour and, well, Nazis”.

Zalmen Mlotek, the artistic director of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, which presented Harmony at the museum, said he had heard about Harmony after a recommendation from developer Bruce Ratner, the chair of the museum.

“When I heard that Manilow and Sussman had written a piece about the Holocaust, I looked at it, the idea of the Comedians, this singing group, had had their careers destroyed, it was just very compelling to me,” he said.

Most of the major cast members from the Folksbiene production have transferred to Broadway, though most are lesser-known performers, something that may make marketing the show difficult. And while Manilow knows he’s a draw — see all those years in Vegas — he’s also not performing, of course.

“I hope the show is strong enough to stand on its own,” he said.

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