New York — More than 30 years after the musical “Harmony” was written, it finally prepares to make its Broadway debut. The show was almost lost to history — like its subject.
The historical show written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman tells the true story of the forgotten German performing group The Comedian Harmonists. Many regard the six-man group as one of the first boy bands, as they recorded a string of popular albums and played sold-out venues around the globe.
But at the height of their popularity, the Nazi party took control of Germany, and they were denounced for being degenerates. Three of the group’s members were Jewish, and possessing their music was considered a crime.
Relegated to obscurity and word of mouth, Sussman learned of the group through a German-language documentary. After seeing it, he recalls running to a phone booth in lower Manhattan to call his writing partner about what he just saw.
“I had never heard of them. And I thought, (Manilow) knows every song ever written. He knows every group that ever was,” Sussman told the Associated Press in a recent interview after a rehearsal for the show.
Manilow was also unaware.
“Then we realized that’s the story,” Sussman said.
But that was half the battle, as information on the group was hard to come by. “The Nazis tried to annihilate them, and they did. You couldn’t find any records. You couldn’t look at any of their movies,” Manilow said.
Though they made approximately a dozen films and released numerous recordings, most were confiscated by authorities and destroyed.
“It was illegal to own or play or sell the records, so people hid their 78s under their mattresses. And after the war, they began to emerge,” Sussman said.
While playing concert dates in Germany, Manilow visited a Tower Records store in Berlin to check out a major display.
“There was a whole wall of Comedian Harmonists. It was like the Beatles. They were the Beatles. They were the Backstreet Boys. They were the first boy band. That’s how big they were,” Manilow said.
While the show was written in the 1990s, Manilow states the long road to Broadway — including stops off-Broadway in New York City and La Jolla Playhouse in California — had little to do with finishing the show and more about finding the right person to bring it to the big stage.
“Basically, it was ‘Harmony’ even in 1997 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Great reviews. Everybody loved it. And it wasn’t about the show, it was about the producers just couldn’t keep going. They couldn’t take it to New York,” Manilow said.
Then Tony-Award winning theatrical producer Ken Davenport stepped in. “He delivered all the way,” Sussman said. Previews begin Oct. 18 at the Barrymore Theatre.
The musical stars Sierra Boggess, Chip Zien and Julie Benko. The six Comedian Harmonists are Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman and Steven Telsey. The director is Warren Carlyle.
Manilow and Sussman are hoping that audiences learn about the legacy of The Comedian Harmonists, and how their brand of entertainment paved the way for the acts that followed.
Manilow and Sussman have worked together for decades with Manilow writing the music and Sussman dealing with lyrics, including the iconic hits “I Made it Through the Rain,” “Copacabana (At the Copa),” and “Hey Mambo.”