Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony, set to premiere on Broadway beginning October 18 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, has been a long time coming—just about 32 years, in fact. The year was 1991 when Sussman first saw a three-hour German documentary about the mostly forgotten performing group The Comedian Harmonists, a German close harmony singing group that was, before World War II, among the most successful acts in all of Europe. “I went down to the street and called Barry [Manilow] and said, ‘Barry, I think I found it,’” remembers Sussman. “I think this is the story we’ve been wanting to turn into a musical.”
Manilow and Sussman had been writing pop hits together for more than a decade, counting such songs as “Copacabana,” “Bermuda Triangle,” and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” in their catalogue. But this musical would be pretty new territory for the duo.
Sussman was inspired by the group’s surprising diversity. Half of the six-member group was Jewish and the other half wasn’t, and more than one member married outside their faith. That might not sound too terribly shocking today, but consider they were working together and performing in Germany and throughout Europe in the ‘30s and ‘40s under the shadow of Adolf Hitler.
Still, Manilow was not initially enthusiastic about the idea. Then he heard the group’s music.
“I’ve never heard anything quite like what they did,” says Manilow. “Yeah, they were old fashioned-sounding, but they were very hip, even in their old-fashioned way of singing. They were the Manhattan Transfer of their time, plus The Marx Brothers in their comedy.” Soon thereafter, Manilow was on a concert tour that took him through Germany. Ever the researcher, he came home with a suitcase full of CDs. “I was soaking in ‘20s and ‘30s German music. I even found Nazi marching bands. As crazy as it was, it was kind of brilliant.”
One would think that getting a musical with a score written by artists with the pedigree of Manilow and Sussman would be simple, but that hasn’t been the case with Harmony. The upcoming Broadway bow follows three pre-Broadway tryout productions dating back to 1997, none of which panned out. Following even more delays due to the pandemic, the stars seemed to have finally aligned, with the Broadway bow following an Off-Broadway run last year at National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine.
Sussman says the show, which also addresses the rise of Nazism in Germany, is ultimately about “how fragile democracy is, and how the threat of autocracy is always waiting around the corner.” Combined with the show’s surprising story about finding harmony even in a group of both Jewish men and gentiles, and you might be thinking that those delays may have worked in this musical’s favor.
But Manilow says that doesn’t take much to connect those themes with the current state of the world, whenever the show has reappeared. “Every time we put this up, it was always the right time,” he says. “There’s always something like this happening.”
Adds Sussman: “That said, I think it’s worse than ever. It’s a little strange. There are moments in the show where there will be a book scene and we’ll get an audible response from the audience. And I say to myself, ‘My God, they’re going to think I’m writing to the headlines, when in fact those lines have been there for 25 years.”
Even more surprising: Harmony has barely changed at all since its very first iteration. Manilow and Sussman have both remained steadfast over those 25 years of starts and stops because they’ve always believed in their show. Manilow is excited for his fans to finally hear the score, and he says it’s “totally different” than anything else he’s written.
“The only thing that you will find is I’m a melody guy," says Manilow. "No matter how I try to write atonal stuff, it always winds up back at my melodies. There’s this moment at the end of the show called 'Threnody,' where out lead character has a nervous breakdown. That was difficult because I didn’t want to write a great melody. It was thrilling to be able to write for situations like that.”
And that, of course, begs the question: With Harmony finally poised to make its long-awaited Broadway debut, can we expect more musicals from Manilow and Sussman—perhaps one of those jukebox musicals audiences are so fond of?
“This one took 25 years,” says Manilow with a wry laugh. “We just want to get through this one.”
See photos from Harmony's 2022 Off-Broadway production: