The Comedian Harmonists, a jazz vocal harmony group that rose to prominence in Weimar Germany, toured internationally, and made twenty-one films, were one of the most popular musical acts of the interwar period. A generation later, they were all but forgotten, until documentary filmmaker Eberhard Fechner profiled them in the 1976 television movie Comedian Harmonists. This inspired a flurry of dramatic representations, including a German movie (Comedian Harmonists), a German musical (Veronika, der Lenz ist da – Die Comedian Harmonists), and an American musical (Harmony), all in 1997. It has taken the last of these, Harmony, twenty-five years to get from its La Jolla Playhouse premiere to Broadway. So, if nothing else, the team behind the musical is determined.
Harmony, as narrated by Rabbi (Chip Zien), the group’s last surviving member, recounts the Comedian Harmonists’ journey from founding to dissolution. Rabbi quickly and succinctly introduces the group’s six members, each with their own reason for joining—for example, Young Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld) thinks, “It would be nice to sing in a major key for a change?” The starving artists get their first big audition, then achieve greater success with each successive scene. Meanwhile, Jewish Rabbi falls in love with Aryan Mary (Sierra Boggess) just as the group’s non-Jewish pianist, Chopin (Blake Roman), falls for Jewish Communist Ruth (Julie Benko).
Soon the group has risen to become an international sensation. But (and it’s not hard to see this “but” coming) the story takes place as the Nazi party is coming to power in Germany. Eventually, the apolitical sextet, half of whom are Jewish, realizes they are being used by the Nazis to put a happy face on Hitler’s government and are forced to take a stand. The Nazis, not well-known for tolerance, disband the group. Mary and the Jewish members of the group flee Germany, but Ruth is caught and imprisoned.
Headliner Chip Zien plays Rabbi (who, in real life, died a year after the musical’s California premiere), as well as a number of smaller roles. He is engaging and belts out his solo number, “Threnody,” with emotional force. Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko also do a bang-up job with their duet, “Where You Go.” All the harmonists are terrific singers, and the music is catchy.
But the songs don’t feel satisfying from a dramatic standpoint. Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s first-act songs are static. They do little to advance the story, and when they do it is by describing actions rather than showing them. To wit, the first number, “Harmony,” tells us how well the group’s members get along, without any convincing moments of camaraderie. Instead, we are told of pithy character traits that the actors never move far beyond. It is unfortunate that, while his choreography is energetic and enjoyable, Warren Carlyle’s direction fails to find much subtext for the actors. Everyone seems to be saying and singing exactly what they feel. It makes for a flat theatrical experience.
And when there is dramatic movement, it feels artificial. For instance, after Erich, one of the group’s tenors, declares he is quitting the group, he sings “Your Son’s Becoming a Singer,” announcing he is not leaving the group. The reason for this change of heart is hardly touched upon and the whole episode feels manufactured, unnecessary. It is as if, in the interest of expediency, the dramatic tissue has been excised, leaving only signposts indicating emotional moments were here.
The play’s central conflict, whether Rabbi should take action to oppose the Nazis, is briefly introduced at the end of the first act, out of nowhere, and then disappears until the end of the second act, when he passes up a second chance to do something. There are moments when others fail to act (Chopin disagrees with Ruth’s political activism, for instance, and the group seems frustratingly indifferent to the rise of Nazism), though the group becomes politically aware near the end and sings the terrific number “Welcome to the Fatherland.” But the show promotes Rabbi as the central character, and gives him the big moments of crisis. They aren’t earned.
As an audience member with no knowledge of the Comedian Harmonists, I find it frustrating that there is little that seems funny or harmonic in their act as it’s presented here. The humor of the song “How Can I Serve You, Madam” relies on a character getting doused with water, a bit that I suspect wasn’t that funny when the Comedian Harmonists did it or when some nameless Roman comedian did it 2000 years before that. And while a quick internet search gives a window into the real group’s beautiful barbershop-quartet-style harmonies, that kind of melded musical arrangement is mostly missing from the show’s performances (though there is a fun bit of instrumental imitation in one number). As talented as the singers are and as much as the show wants to tell their story, I never felt like I was getting any insight into the real Comedian Harmonists.
To be fair, the second act is much stronger than the first. The songs are more textured, the staging is more engaging, the actors have more to do. Maybe the arrival of the Nazis clarifies the action and gives direction to the drama. But the dichotomy of the two acts makes the musical feel like a mashup of Jersey Boys and Schindler’s List.
Beowulf Boritt’s sets effectively play with stage depth, often suggesting the scene and letting audience imagination fill in the rest. Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, while a touch melodramatic at times, compliments the production nicely. Costumes by Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie are period appropriate.
While the play has its flaws, the threat of anti-Semitism and the failure to act against injustice resonate in this historical moment. Sadly, these are timeless themes.