A New Kind of Harmony: Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's Musical Plays Ahmanson Theatre

By Evan Henerson
13 Mar 2014

Bruce Sussman and Barry Manilow
Photo by Michael Simon

Admittedly, the man is not protesting too much. Manilow is one of the top-selling contemporary pop artists ever to put note to music, with 80 million albums sold, Grammys, Emmys and Tony Awards and a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Power ballads are their own animal; Harmony is a beast of a different nature.

Harmony was inspired by a three-hour German documentary directed by Eberhard Fechner that Sussman discovered in 1994. The Comedian Harmonists were a wildly popular music and comedy sextet in pre-World War II Germany, half of whose members happened to be Jewish. The rise of the Nazi party forced the band to leave the country and splinter off. The musical is told from the perspective of "Rabbi" Josef Roman Cykowski, the last surviving member of the harmonists who met and was interviewed by Manilow prior to his death in 1998.

During their heyday, the Comedian Harmonists (who were also the subject of the film "The Harmonists" and the musical Band In Berlin) were as popular as the Beatles, the Backstreet Boys, One Direction or name-your-swoon band. That neither Sussman nor Manilow had even heard of the group prior to seeing the documentary prompted Sussman to propose turning their tale into a musical.

"I realized the fact that I didn't know them is the story," said Sussman, who was in Berlin starting his research mere months after seeing the film. "I realized this is a show about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history. Let me at it."

The play's world premiere came at the end of the La Jolla Playhouse's "15/50" anniversary season (15 years since the Playhouse's revival and 50 years total existence), a season that would also see the launch of the national tour of Rent by Playhouse artistic director Michael Greif. But while Jonathan Larson's rock opera was already famous, Harmony was the season's wild card, according to Neel Keller who, at the time, was the Playhouse's artistic associate.

"I think the expectation going in with Harmony was really 'Let's see what is this going to be. What kind of a musical will Barry Manilow write?'" said Keller, who is reunited with the new version of Harmony as the associate artistic director at CTG. "It was really sort of a wildfire. People came and realized, 'Oh, it's a brand new musical. It's not a musical of all music that we've heard before.'"

The La Jolla Playhouse cast, under the direction of David Warren, featured future Broadway lights Janet Metz, Patrick Wilson, Danny Burstein and Rebecca Luker (who would later marry). In the ensemble was San Diego native and future The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon director Casey Nicholaw.

"If there was a 'star' among us, it was Rebecca Luker," said Thom Christopher Warren, who played Harry, who assembled the group. "She had done Secret Garden and Show Boat and was about to do The Sound of Music. Nobody knew who Danny Burstein (who played Rabbi) was, but let me tell you the moment he opened his mouth, we knew he would be something special."