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He Wrote the Songs


We are sitting in a lounge off the empty Mandell Weiss Theatre, a few weeks before the opening of Harmony, Barry Manilow’s impassioned tribute to six musicians caught in the dark web of history. Manilow sits deep in an overstuffed chair, a crinkle-eyed smile on his boyish face as he explains this somewhat improbable theme for a musical:

“They were so brilliant; they were so innovative. We couldn’t figure out why nobody knew them, why we never heard of them before. We first heard a CD of these boys’ work—the Comedian Harmonists. And then Bruce saw this documentary that was all about their lives and it really turned us both on.”

“Barry and I are infomaniacs,” offers Bruce Sussman, a veteran writer of four Broadway musicals and collaborator with Manilow on Harmony at La Jolla Playhouse. “Music history is our cup of tea. We were stunned that this was news to us, that a group of singers as renowned as they were in the 1920s and ’30s would just not be in our consciousness.”

The Comedian Harmonists, a white-tie-and-tails comedy sextet, had played all over the world. Someone had slapped the group’s old 78s together on a CD, and the talent of the singers was incredible. Sussman learned that a documentary on their lives would be shown at the Public Theater in New York, announced for only two nights.

“Barry was in California and I was in New York, so I went to the Public Theater and sat through four hours about the Harmonists—in German with English subtitles. The documentary had been made in the ’70s, when four of them were still alive. I remember coming out and going to a pay phone and saying, ‘Barry, the story is unbelievable. I think we have the musical we’re looking for.’”

Manilow and Sussman are longtime songwriting collaborators. They have worked together for 25 years and turned out such hits as “I Made It Through the Rain,” “Copacabana” and “Blue” (with Manilow in duet with Sarah Vaughn). But they had always dreamed of doing a musical together. Once this idea jelled, they couldn’t leave it alone. The Comedian Harmonists became a full-time obsession.

Manilow had been working on other things—albums and tours and, with Sussman, a couple of animated movies (Thumbelina and The Pebble and the Penguin). But from the time his Brooklyn grandfather first put an accordion in his 6-year-old hands and took him to Times Square to feel the excitement of the big city, Manilow had always longed to do songs for musical theater.

So why such a dark story? “I don’t think it’s a dark story,” says Manilow. “It’s a tragic story [two of the Comedian Harmonists were Jewish, and the group, upon returning to Germany, was forced to break up], but the essence of the story is very uplifting and beautiful. I mean, the end of the story is kind of dark, but most of their story is beautiful.”

“The first act, in particular, travels along at a pretty happy clip—funny,” says Sussman. “You get to love these boys and not even realize there’s a storm brewing.

“The night they played at Carnegie Hall—that turned out to be a very significant night in their lives,” Sussman comments. “It was 1933, and after being on the road for a year, the whole rise of national socialism had happened while they were out of their country. A very important scene in our piece is when they agonize about whether to stay in America if these rumors are true, or if it is just the anti-German press. If they went back and found it was really that bad, they’d just leave. Well, it didn’t work out that way.”

Manilow and Sussman, both Jewish, were intrigued by the story.

“Whether the entire tragic part of this moves me more because I’m Jewish,” says Manilow, “whether it moves me more because my relatives actually went through it—I hadn’t thought about that part. I think it’s going to move everybody. There are moments in the script when we refer to traditional Jewish rituals that move me, because of how I was raised. I don’t follow the Jewish religion anymore. It’s not that I have abandoned it; it’s just not what I do. But because I was raised like that—during the wedding scene, when they break the glass, it got me. I said to Bruce, ‘I think I need a tissue here.’ We’ve been going for tissues like crazy,” he adds. “Even in the comedy numbers.”

“There are some beautiful melodies in this piece,” says Sussman. “I think there’s one song that is the finest song we’ve ever written. It’s a song in the first act called ‘In This World,’ and I think Barry’s melody came from”—he waves toward heaven but is at a momentary loss for words, unusual for a wordsmith. He settles for an awed “It’s a gift.”

Once the book and music were written, Manilow and Sussman decided to shop the regional theaters to find a home for their musical before taking it to Broadway. So they made a tour of the four corners of the country.

“We came with our little manila envelopes filled with the script and cassette,” says Manilow. “In the past we had talked to a lot of people. We knew exactly what we wanted to see on the stage, and we kept meeting people who didn’t see it the same way, so we were happy to walk away. And that was like the first time in all of our careers we were confident enough to do that.”

“We were always prepared to put the piece in the drawer,” Sussman says.

“We met a lot of talented people who had some interesting ideas, but they just weren’t the way we saw it,” says Manilow.

“They wanted to do a different show,” says Sussman.

“It was hard to say no,” says Manilow. “These were big talents, directors with track records, producers promising us the world. But when we heard what they had in mind, we said, ‘That’s not the piece we want to do.’”

Finding the courage to say no was a turning point. “You can do that at any time in your life, you know,” says Manilow, reflectively. “We could have done it at any time.” He laughs. “It’s just that we didn’t know it.”

Then came regional theater in La Jolla.

“As soon as we got out of the car here, we knew this was what we were looking for,” says Manilow. “There’s something great about this place [the La Jolla Playhouse]. You can see they put their money into the theater and not the offices. Have you seen where the staff works? They work in trailers. They were so sincere about the art, you know. They were younger, they seemed hipper, they seemed very into encouraging people like us who had not done too much of this.”

“And Michael Greif [artistic director of the Playhouse] had worked at the Public Theater when the documentary was airing there,” says Sussman. “He was the only man we spoke to that knew who the Comedian Harmonists were. And he just lit up when we started talking about it.”

“When we got back into our car, after they took us to lunch,” says Manilow, “we were really hoping that they liked what we’d presented them—more than any of the other theaters.”

They did.

The show has a cast of 24—six men, two principal women, six more major speaking characters and the ensemble. “And they’re so talented,” says Manilow. “I sit there and I just can’t believe them. They learn so quickly, and they’re so funny and so sincere. Our wonderful director, David Warren, is a great leader with a great sense of humor. There’s no temperament—there’s not one diva.”

A lot of that is due to the casting. “We didn’t hire people who got a little ... well, you know,” Manilow explains. “Maybe they were great singers or great dancers, but if we got a little hint that this could be trouble, we didn’t hire that person. We went for the people who really felt right. And they’ve come up to the challenge, every single one of them. Maybe their auditions weren’t as great as they could be, but God, they’ve all come through so great.”

One of the carefully chosen six Harmonists, Jason Opsahl, had to be replaced a few weeks before opening night. “A tragedy,” says Manilow. Opsahl was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was the single dark spot in the picture. Another actor was called from New York to replace him.

“There were mountains of script, mountains of choreography to learn,” says Manilow. “But everybody came through.”

“What was important to us about this piece,” says Sussman, “was that

it was the quest of six extraordinary young men to find harmony, in the broadest sense of the word, in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter

in history.”

It’s Manilow’s second musical (at age 18, he wrote the score for The Drunkard, which played eight years off-Broadway) and Sussman’s fourth. Will we hear the famous Barry Manilow “sound” in Harmony—an unabashedly sentimental sound that has its share of rabid fans (and jaded non-fans)?

After a pause, Manilow says, “I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.”

“I’d be surprised if anybody thought that,” agrees Sussman. “This musical is all about the ’20s to ’40s, and Barry’s enthusiasm for that era puts a new spin on his music.”

“I really crawled into this world of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” says Manilow, “which I happen to love. For 20 years I’ve been doing pop music, and it’s been great, but... If you want to stop me in my tracks, just play one of those old Joan Crawford movies. Those were unbelievable composers—Max Steiner, David Raksin. I’m there. I just stand there. I wasn’t around then, or I was very young [Manilow was born in 1946], but it’s so evocative of that period. It’s not pop. It’s not the ’70s or ’80s. There’s no big backbeats, no record sound. It’s ... ‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee’; ‘I’m Forever Chasing Rainbows.’”

“These guys were comedians who performed in white tie and tails,” says Sussman.

“And they were harmonists,” says Manilow, “like our modern-day Manhattan Transfer. So it’s not anything like ‘Mandy’ or ‘I Write the Songs.’

“I bought millions of CDs [of the period] and lots of classical stuff, because some of it comes from the classics, too. And then when we started writing the score, I threw them all away and trusted that whatever was left was mine.”

Barry Manilow’s career has included virtually every facet of entertaining. From ARRY MANILOW’S career has included virtually every facet of entertaining. From the time he had that accordion dumped in his lap until he had sold 58 million records, Manilow thought of nothing but music. At first, he played backup or wrote for other artists. His big break came when he did demos of some of his best songs and won a recording contract. He has had 37 top-40 hits, among them “Mandy,” “This One’s for You,” “Weekend in New England,” “I Write the Songs” and “Tryin’ To Get the Feeling Again.”

“But Bruce and I started off many, many years ago, before the pop music career hit for me, wanting to be Broadway songwriters,” says Manilow. “And then—big surprise—I wound up singing ‘Mandy’ and going on the stage and doing things I’d never even thought about doing. I’d worked for so many people before ‘Mandy’ hit—I was a composer, an arranger, a conductor for Bette Midler and so many other people—but my big goal was being a Broadway songwriter.”

When two men collaborate as successfully as Sussman and Manilow, what comes first, the lyrics or the music? Both answer in chorus: “The idea!”

“The part of the process few people talk about,” says Sussman. “Barry and I think it’s the most important part. Why is this person singing? What is the mission of the song? What does the song have to accomplish? The follow-through about what music and what lyrics, that’s the fun part.”

“That’s easy,” says Manilow. “After we’d talked about what we want to say, he’d give me a paragraph. Some of the words would rhyme, some wouldn’t, but the idea was there. Sometimes I would musicalize that paragraph...”

“Then I’d go back and structure it,” adds Sussman.

“And little by little it would emerge as a song,” says Manilow.

“Ideally, in a musical, the song should come in the moment when people can no longer talk,” says Sussman.

Why can’t they talk? “The emotion is so high, we’re going to another plateau now. I find most of my colleagues are terrified of that moment. I adore that moment. This

is my favorite moment to write. Barry and I are on the same wavelength. We both know when we want people to sing, and what we want them to say.”

Harmony is what is called a “large book” musical—not all sung—and it isn’t done much anymore. It’s “where there’s a real play going on, and they don’t sing all the way through and there’s that wonderful delicious moment, if you know how to do it, when dialogue bridges into song,” explains Sussman.

“People just don’t do it anymore,” says Manilow. “I’m not saying they take the easy way out—because there’s nothing easy about The Phantom or Les Misèrables.” But with modern opera, everything is in song. He knows that with Harmony they’re taking a risk in reverting to the old musical-comedy structure. “If you don’t do it right,” says Manilow, “it really stinks. It looks like people bursting into song for the wrong reason.”

“But we believe that when it’s done right, it’s thrilling,” says Sussman.

And how will the audience take to this old-new format? Manilow is happy. Sussman is happy. The cast is happy. “We just hope the audience is happy. That they won’t be running up the aisle for orange juice,” laughs Manilow, who isn’t thinking beyond opening night at this point. When friends call to inquire, he tells them he can’t remember the opening-night date; he’ll have to call them back.

“I’ve got close family coming, but nobody else. I want to see what it is,” he says, separating each word—as if the musical itself will inform him, at some point in time, of its own nature. Of whether it is worth keeping.

Then, in a sudden drop in intensity, Manilow adds: “One of my friends gave me a book called Broadway Flops. It was the history of every single flop from the ’20s to the ’90s, and I read every single page. They went through the same stuff we’ve gone through—a great staged reading, great rehearsals—and then they flopped. So I just don’t take anything for granted. Why I keep reading this, I don’t know.”

Harmony, which opened October 19, is slated to run through November 23 at La Jolla Playhouse.
“There are some beautiful melodies in this piece,” says Sussman. “I think there’s one song that is the finest song we’ve ever written. It’s a song in the first act called ‘In This World,’ and I think Barry’s melody came from”—he waves toward heaven but is at a momentary loss for words, unusual for a wordsmith. He settles for an awed “It’s a gift.”
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