Home Entertainment The Comedian Harmonists:  The Most Famous Singing Group You’ve Never Heard Of

The Comedian Harmonists:  The Most Famous Singing Group You’ve Never Heard Of

Story by Ruth J. Katz. Photographs courtesy of Juliana Cervantes.

They were figuratively today’s K-pop BTS group or the Backstreet Boys, but of the late1920s and early ’30s in Europe. No, the world.  This German sensation, the Comedian Harmonists, performed at Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1933, and it is with a recreation of that night’s Gotham gala that this musical—Harmony: A New Musical, the story of their rise and demise, both personal and professional—opens; it is the retelling of their history. After the Carnegie Hall opening sequence, the musical then zips into flashbacks, as their lives unfurl in music and dance. While they were headliners in their own right, the group was also a much-in-demand, popular opening act for the likes of Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich. They sold millions of records and made more than a half-dozen films.

In a word: They were something, with a capital S. A combo of flashy, euphonic harmonies and comedic antics that catapulted them to fame, not only in their native Eastern European environs, but internationally, as well. And because of their celebrity status—at least for a while—they were allowed to skirt the restrictive Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of many “privileges.” (Two of the six members were Jewish, one had married a Jewish woman, and a fourth had somewhat secreted, but nonetheless, Jewish bloodlines, as defined by Hitler’s standards.) But not for that long.  As the louche and anything-goes salad days of the Weimar Republic dimmed, only to collide with the suffocating laws of the Third Reich, their performance days were, in a word, kaput.

The tales of their lives and short-lived career has been the subject of documentaries, a film, a play, and a book, as well as other tributes.  But, they get the royal treatment here in Harmony, thanks to Barry Manilow (music), his longstanding collaborator, Charles Sussman (book and lyrics), and Warren Carlyle, the Tony Award-winning director and choreographer. The show is presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), the folks who brought us the amazing and highly acclaimed Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish. For the record, the Folksbiene is now in its 107th season, making it the longest consecutively-producing theater in the States, and not insignificantly, the world’s oldest continuously-operating Yiddish theater company.  Harmony is being presented in the same location as Fiddler, in downtown Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, staged in the intimate Edmond J. Safra Hall. So, if you are going to be in Manhattan any time in the next month or so, snag a pair of tickets, as the show is selling out quickly.

I had seen a documentary about the Comedian Harmonists many moons ago, and so I was quite eager to experience this show, with its tuneful music that retells such a fascinating, albeit slender, slice of history. Manilow and Sussman had been kicking this story around for nearly three decades and had opened a version of this show some 25 years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, and then the team took it out of mothballs in 2014 for runs in Los Angeles and in Atlanta. You might just say that for the creative team, this was, and still is, a passion project.

And your seeing it may just be an act of passion, too, as you’ll likely fall in love with the six Comedian Harmonists:  Playing the “boys” is a qualified cadre of youthful theater veterans, with diverse credits in their bios: The group’s de facto leader is tenor buffo Zal Owen, playing Harry Fromermann, whose bright idea it is to try to put together such a group; portraying the role of Roman Cycowski, aka  “Rabbi,” (who was, in actuality, a trained cantor, hailing from Poland), is the group’s pivot personality, a relative newcomer, Danny Kornfeld; the first tenor, from Bulgaria, was Ari “Lesh” Leschnikoff, embodied by Steven Telsey; the second tenor and a medical school dropout (and the closeted Jew) is Erich Collin, played by Eric Peter; Sean Bell takes on the role of bass Robert Biberti; cozily taking on the role of the group’s pianist, Erwin Bootz, is Blake Roman. Bootz had been playing piano in a seedy burlesque hall, it would appear, and because of his nimble fingers on the ivories, he was affectionately dubbed “Chopin” by his fellow performers.

Key female roles include the alluring Sierra Bogess, as Rabbi’s girlfriend, then wife, Mary; talented Jessie Davidson, as Ruth, Harry’s wife; and Ana Hoffman in a dishy portrayal of Josephine Baker. The glue to the entire show is celebrated Broadway veteran Chip Zien, who plays the older incarnation of Rabbi, looking back on their enmeshed lives and the group’s career.  He takes on other wacky and wise roles in the show….slipping into and out of wigs and outfits that have him tricked out as, among several cameos, Albert Einstein and—wait for it—Marlene Dietrich.

The gifted Manilow has created a lovely songbook within this show, and the opening salvo, not surprisingly entitled “Harmony” (and it’s a long kick-off number), will be a melodic ear worm in your brain for weeks.  Several ballads will leave you wanting to hear their mellifluous strains again and again. The waker-upper, “We’re Going Loco!”, is a Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 extravaganza, just as the “Come to the Fatherland” is a clever (the “boys” are decked out as marionettes) non-traditional B’way number, and the “How Can I Serve You, Madame?” is a riotous group tune, with the Harmonists attired as waiters, sans pants, but with trays and garters, holding up their socks.

The production runs now through May 15th (it’s been extended once, and I would not be surprised, if, after this downtown run, the musical finds itself a worthy theater uptown), in the newly renovated Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located at Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place in Battery Park City, Manhattan. For tickets to Harmony, visit NYTF.org or call 855-449-4658. Contact 212-655-7653 for all other inquiries.

©  2022 Ruth J. Katz  All Rights Reserved

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