Iconic singer Barry Manilow talks about bringing his Nazi-era musical to New York

New York Jewish Week – Barry Manilow could fill a stage just by showing up with a piano, and he did: Beginning in 1977, his Broadway appearances were almost always sold out. With 13 multi-platinum albums, 28 top 10 hits and a reputable and dedicated fan base, he could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.

But at 78, the Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter and his writing partner Bruce Sussman are, well, ready to try their luck again. Their musical “Harmony”, produced by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, is presented for the first time in New York. This is a musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a performance troupe of Jews and Gentiles who combined tight harmonies and stage antics in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Their success was a counterpoint to the rise of the Nazis, who eventually banned performances featuring works by Jewish composers, which formed a significant part of their repertoire. In 1934, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported at the time, the Harmonists were barred from giving public concerts because two members of the group were Jewish.

Manilow and Sussman have worked together for decades, with a catalog that includes everything from pop hits to musical theater performances. “Harmony” was first staged in 1997; Sussman discovered the group through a long German-language documentary that first aired in 1977.

“We couldn’t believe we didn’t know these people,” Manilow said of The Harmonists.

Ahead of the show’s official opening on April 14 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, Jewish Week New York caught up with Manilow and Sussman to talk musical theater, their Jewish upbringing in New York City, and how to create harmony in an ever discordant world.

Barry Manilow, Bruce Sussman and the cast of “Harmony”. (Julieta Cervantes/ via JTA)

Barry, before you were one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, you started out in theater, you and Bruce. You had to sneak into the second act of “Company” when that show first premiered on Broadway because you couldn’t afford the tickets. Now you’ve performed on Broadway and “Harmony” opens this year in New York. When you think about it all, how does it feel to see your career come full circle like this?

Manilow: I’m not sure we’ve come full circle exactly, but it’s exciting to be in New York, I’ll tell you. We’re doing what we’ve always wanted to do, which is to bring “Harmony” to New York. This theater in particular is very moving. It really resonates with this show, and with me and Bruce. It’s a very big impact on the public, to be in this theater.

You had a Jewish upbringing, in one of the most Jewish places in the world, Brooklyn. Do you have any specific memories of what it was like to grow up Jewish in Brooklyn? Were any of those memories used to shape the songs for the show?

Manilow: My only answer is the accordion. Every Jewish child had to play the accordion before letting you cross the Williamsburg Bridge. Just kidding, but I was good at the accordion. They only teach you Yiddish folk songs. I loved those Yiddish songs. The family sang a lot. I received a very musical Yiddish education. When I left Williamsburg, I knew this world of Yiddish folk songs. I played them, I sang them, I arranged them, I knew everything about them. Jumping into “Harmony” was just a great familiar musical experience for me.

Barry, you performed on Broadway for years, including the 1977 show “Barry Manilow on Broadway” which won you a special Tony Award. Is there anything you can say about producing and creating theater now compared to when you started?

Manilow: It’s always the same. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, only it costs even more over the years. I don’t know how these shows go.

Susman: Also, I think what is considered commercial is a smaller number of parts. When we started, there were situation comedies on Broadway. There were all kinds of musicals. And I think now a lot of those things are no longer doable on Broadway. It’s either off-Broadway or in regional theaters, but not on Broadway. It’s just harder to finance. The original ‘Follies’ production Barry and I saw in 1971 was budgeted at $700,000 [approximately $5 million in today’s money]. And it was the most expensive show produced to date. You can barely do a workshop for that amount of money now. The finances are mind-boggling, and that puts pressure on producers to make sure they have something that is financially viable. This therefore reduces the number of shows that will qualify.

“Harmony” by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman premieres April 14 in New York. (Julieta Cervantes/ via JTA)

So in this world of “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” how were you able to bring this show to life, a show about Jewish singers facing oppression?

Susman: We wrote the series that we wanted to write, and we hoped that people would like it and that we would find a home for it. It was just a matter of bringing her to New York. And now the National Yiddish Theater has come forward with this beautiful, beautiful building that I’m in, and here we are.

“Harmony” is a show set in a time when the Jewish people faced great oppression and had to fight against it. Have you seen any parallels between this story and life right now, or maybe in your own life?

Susman: I’m from Queens and Barry is from Brooklyn. We both grew up in a sort of bubble. Being Jewish was kind of the norm. It wasn’t until I went to college in western Pennsylvania that I realized, oh my God, I’m the minority. I grew up in Jackson Heights. In all the schools I went to, during the Jewish holidays, no one went to school. Everyone had left. I was always among mine. The story of “Harmony” was something that I just knew from history, but it was not something that I personally experienced in my life.

Manilow: It’s really not about my life at all. The only parallel is that I am a musician and they were musicians. And they were very inventive, so inventive that they were the first to do the kind of harmonies that we hear now. Now we got the high notes, we got the Backstreet Boys, nobody did that, plus they were [like] the Marx Brothers. And then all their records, all their music, all their films were destroyed. They were the inventors of a style of music and comedy that had never existed before them.

Susman: And when we realized why we didn’t know them, that was the story. It became very compelling to us. One of the parallels too is that Barry and I, first and foremost, are collaborators. And this show is about “harmony” in the broadest sense of the term. And one of the ways these guys found harmony was finding the ability to successfully collaborate with each other. It’s something Barry and I can relate to very strongly. A lot of people don’t know how to collaborate. And that’s very important to us. It’s the thing Barry and I do best.

Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman at a rehearsal for their musical ‘Harmony’ in New York. (Julieta Cervantes/ via JTA)

My editors are going to kill me if I don’t ask about “Copacabana”. It’s one of your favorite songs. Do you feel the same about it? Do you still feel the same thrill performing your most classic hit today?

Manilow: I do it. I would stop doing it if I didn’t. These audiences ignite with every shot I’ve been lucky enough to get. By the time we get to “Copa”, it’s the last straw for them. In my shows, there are so many hits and songs that they know, that by the time we get to “Copa”, they’ve forgotten that I haven’t done “Copa” yet. When those drums start, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for that audience.

Both of you have achieved all the musical milestones in the industry. What remains to be accomplished?

Manilow: As for what’s on the horizon, we don’t know yet. We have to finish this. It took a long time. Whether we do it in town or it ends at the Yiddish theater, I will be very happy. We will soon have an original soundtrack. That will be great. It would be so wonderful if we could move this downtown. Right now, we’re just in the weeds to make sure this version of “Harmony” is the best we’ve ever had.

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