Sanguine: Barry Manilow, centre, watches rehearsal of the new musical Harmony in Atlanta, Georgia. The musical created by Bruce Sussman and Manilow opens at the Alliance Theatre on September 6.
By Melissa Ruggieri
On opening night of Harmony: A New Musical, don’t expect to see Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman lounging in the audience.
It’s more likely the iconic musician and his longtime songwriting partner will be boring a hole in the Alliance Theatre carpet as they pace somewhere in the darkness.
Raw nerves are understandable, as the journey to bring Harmony to the stage again has been detoured and derailed so frequently, it could form its own nail-biter of a drama.
At the moment, however, Manilow and Sussman are sanguine. Staging their musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a six-man vocal and comedy ensemble that ruled music in 1920s Germany, at the Alliance is, as Sussman whispers with a smile, “bashert,” the Yiddish expression for “meant to be.”
During the first week of rehearsals earlier this month, Sussman and Manilow took a break from watching director Tony Speciale and the 19-member cast run through the swelling ballads This is Our Time and Every Single Day to discuss the production they’ve been trying to get back on stage since a short run in La Jolla, Calif., in 1997.
“I just want to see it up there one more time before I croak,” Manilow says, his soft blue eyes expressing the passion he’s felt for the show since Sussman first called him from a payphone in Manhattan in 1991. He had just watched a documentary about the vocal group at an area movie house and “blathered” to Manilow, “I think we found the story we’re looking for.”
“Bruce and I know a lot about music, but we had never heard of these people. How’d we miss them? They were the architects of the kind of stuff we love. They were so inventive, but how come we never heard of these guys? That’s the story,” Manilow says.
The Comedian Harmonists were the boy band of their time because of their stylish looks — full tuxedos — and popularity. But they were also vaudevillians, and musically, their six-part harmonies could be compared to the contemporary music of The Manhattan Transfer, Take 6, or, when their voices blended to mimic the sounds of instruments, Bobby McFerrin. Their success continued into the early 1930s, but because three of the group’s members were either Jewish or of Jewish descent, the Nazi regime quashed their success.
“It became a crime to play their records,” Sussman says, “so people hid them under their beds.” Sussman and Manilow’s friendship and professional relationship spans 41 years, and they’ve been trying to stage a musical together since the beginning. But Manilow’s extraordinary pop career — more than 80 million records sold worldwide — continued to escalate.
“We met to write musicals and the pop thing took over,” says Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Harmony.” But that day in 1991 when Sussman called from the payphone, Manilow “took a leap of faith and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, but go get it,’ and I was on a plane to Berlin within a couple of months to start the research.”
That research included meeting with an uber-fan, to whom the Harmonists had bequeathed memorabilia, including costumes, passports and music, and talking to an original Comedian Harmonist, Roman “Rabbi” Cykowski, before he died in 1998. Unbeknown to Manilow, Cykowski lived around the corner from him in Palm Springs.
“He was a vaudevillian,” Manilow recalls. “In the play, he’s married to a woman named Mary, and when I walked into their house, she was sitting next to him. I could cry just remembering that moment.” Sussman attended a performance by a Comedian Harmonists tribute group in a basement club in Germany with a “young, hip punk crowd” — a nod to the timelessness of the Harmonists’ work.
Manilow, who composed the music for Harmony, also travelled to Germany, headed to Tower Records and stocked up on hit compilation records, called the “schlagerparade,” from the music of the 1920s and 1930s.
“I left with a suitcase full of the schlagerparade and dove into the classical music of that generation,” he says. “In a good way, I don’t think you’ll consider this a Barry Manilow pop score.” Sussman smiles at his friend and is quick to compliment.
“I think it reflects not only the impeccable research you did, but your love of the theatre.” The rhythm between Sussman and Manilow is palpable. They finish each other’s sentences. They share such a tight mental bond that Manilow often jokes to Sussman, “I can hear you working,” when Sussman is merely sitting and thinking.
Sussman, his blue shirt sleeves rolled up, is the animated yin to Manilow’s quieter, black suit-clad yang. But when they huddle together at the back of a rehearsal,” they both nod affirmatively at what they’re hearing — different personalities but of the same mind.
They also knew immediately when they contacted Alliance Artistic Director Susan V. Booth a little more than a year ago — a call made without the interference of producers or investors or anyone from “that world,” as Manilow frequently refers to Broadway bean counters — that Harmony would at last have a home.
“She answered the phone and said, ‘Gentleman, please tell me you’re calling about Harmony,” Sussman recalls, eyes widening with incredulity. “Well, the two of us, we were just shy of bursting into tears.”
Manilow, shaking his head in disbelief, continues. “She knew the script, she had heard the score. Finally, it was somebody saying the most beautiful things about the show. I don’t know if we’d get that from that other world, because that other world wanted Jay-Z in the show,” he says, referring to a meeting with Great White Way producers who suggested that the rapper star in the musical.
“I was asked once if I’d consider writing in the von Trapp children,” Sussman adds, amplifying the absurdity that he and Manilow have battled over the years. “(Susan) only confirmed our instincts that regional theaters are where you want to do your work. It’s about the piece. It isn’t about the von Trapp children or Jay-Z.”
Booth, for her part, says she remembered hearing about the show’s two-month run in La Jolla back when she was director of new play development at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. After coming to the Alliance, she started digging around in 2008 to check on the status of Harmony, which had been tied up in a series of investor and litigious headaches through the early 2000s.
“I put my hand up inside the circle and said, ‘if you’re thinking of doing regional theatre, I really want to be on that list,’” Booth says.
Now that she’s witnessed the pair in action, she is unabashedly impressed.
“I’ve been so moved by how unencumbered they are by their professional notoriety,” Booth says. “They are treating this moment as if there is this and only this. If that’s the governing vibe in the room, great work gets done. If it’s ‘what’s next?’ you make decisions for all the wrong reasons.”
To listen to Manilow, Harmony begins and ends at regional theatres. He shakes his head emphatically when asked what his plan is for the musical beyond its monthlong run at the Alliance and subsequent staging at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles next year.
“Nothing,” is the plan, Manilow says.
Sussman jumps in to counter. “You know what’s going to happen? People are going to be here and talk to us and we’ll see if there is enough Valium on the planet to have those conversations,” he says, looking at Manilow.
But Manilow, shaking his head again, is adamant.
“I don’t think my heart can take it.” Or, for that matter, the theatre carpeting. — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT