These are perhaps the most famous international superstars you’ve never heard of, thanks to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis who tried to eliminate their very existence.
But in the musical “Harmony,” which premiered in New York this week, Barry Manilow and his longtime partner Bruce Sussman try to give the six young men of the Comedian Harmonists their rightful place in history by telling their story.
It’s a project they’ve been working on for decades, but the relevance of “Harmony” is now chilling, with war raging in Ukraine and innocent lives disrupted by hate.
“It feels very current,” Manilow said in an interview at a rehearsal last month.
“I think one of the many joys of doing this show now is that it seems to resonate more than ever,” Sussman added.
“There are actually times on the show where I’m afraid people will think I’m writing in the headlines. These things were written, some of them years ago, and that’s right now they seem to be taken from the front page of the newspaper or your main story on CNN,” he said.
Three of the voice actors were Jewish, three were Gentiles. They were shut down by Hitler, their 12 films and many records were burned and destroyed. All the men scattered and fled, and one of their Jewish wives was taken by the Third Reich and never seen again.
But before they got there, the men, world sensations in the early 1930s, were in New York, playing Carnegie Hall, and had the opportunity to stay in America but decided to return to Germany.
The emotional character of these men unable to imagine that a dictator like Hitler could kill innocent people as he did is a chilling parallel to current events, when Vladimir Putin appears to be targeting civilians – children and women – in his own bloodthirsty quest for the land. and power.
When the character known as “Rabbi”, played by Chip Zien, spouts a painful line “Why?” audiences don’t need to be transported nearly a century back to connect with gratuitous evil. This is happening as we speak in Ukraine.
“It’s the same hate, just different uniforms,” is one of many lines from the musical with this tragically timely meaning.
The group was officially shut down by the Nazis, not only because some of its members were Jewish, but because the singers were labeled “degenerate” and censored, also the kind of tactic seen in Russia today. of Putin.
Sussman wrote the lyrics and Manilow wrote the music.
“It’s my proudest moment as a songwriter,” Manilow said.
“That’s what I started out wanting to be. I wanted to be a Broadway songwriter and a pop music arranger. That was it. And here it is. It took a little longer, a little longer than I thought, but it’s the kind of Broadway musical that I’ve always wanted to write. It’s got all the styles of music that I’ve always loved. It’s not that a style. You’d think, ‘Oh, Barry Manilow, it’s just going to be ballads.’ It’s not. Every song is totally different from the one before it,” Manilow explained.
“This is the Barry I want everyone to know,” Sussman added.
The two have been collaborating for 50 years, writing one of Manilow’s most enduring hits together: “Copacabana.”
“’Copacabana’ was an ice cream sundae. It was sparkling, and it was fun to do, and it was stylish, elegant. It was also a very weird pop song because there was nothing like that on the radio. Maybe that’s one of the reasons it’s been so successful. It’s – we have to get in the head of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s between the wars,” Sussman explained.
“We talk about the depth of this piece. It’s not a serious evening. The first act is as cheerful, fun, and full of energy as any Broadway musical I’ve ever seen. Right in the second act, it starts to get dark,” Manilow said.
The idea came decades ago after Sussman watched a documentary about the Comedian Harmonists and called Manilow to say he had found the musical they should write. Before Manilow became a pop star in the early 1970s with his first hit, “Mandy,” collaborators and friends wanted to be the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Both New York natives and Jews, they said they were immediately connected to this story.
“We know these people. I mean, there are Jewish characters and Gentile characters. We certainly know the Jewish characters. These are people we grew up with. They are people from our family. They were people from our neighborhoods who were also awfully talented,” Sussman said.
“We know what this means for them. Yes, it was deep. This part was a profound experience. Bruce must have gone much further than me since he is the author of the book, the author of the story. But I had to do my own thing and find melodies that made sense in this German and Jewish world,” Manilow said.
And to these Manilow melodies, the characters sing of an impending doom the audience knows is coming: “Darkness grows. The world is getting cold. And still there shines the light. God knows. What hope they have tonight.
For more on that, CNN’s Dana Bash presents “Being…Barry Manilow,” which airs Saturday at 11 p.m. ET on CNN.