There’s a narrator in “Harmony,” Bruce Sussman and Barry Manilow’s musical now playing at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater—an elderly rabbi, played ably by Chip Zien, who tells the true story of six young men in Berlin who formed a comedic singing group in 1927 that rose to international fame at the same time that the Nazis came to power. The rabbi was one of three Jewish men in the group, called the Comedian Harmonists, and he implies throughout the play that he was the only survivor.
You’d think, then, that the two and half hours of action up on the stage would be sorrowful and terrifying, and ultimately tragic, but they’re not. The play, equal parts glitzy and superficial, consists largely of jaunty songs, written by Manilow, that the group sings on stages — including Carnegie Hall — as they travel the world. The Nazis don’t seem to mind that there are Jews sharing their air (in fact, some Nazis are fans of the music), and let them come and go long after most Jews and their artist compatriots have been stripped of their jobs and their passports.
That’s part of the point of the play — that none of these young men took the Nazi threat seriously enough — but there’s not much more plot than that. One of the men marries a young Jewish woman in the resistance, played with style by Julie Benko, and they’re blissfully happy until the marriage is destroyed by his passivity in the face of such grave danger. That’s the high point of the narrative, unless you include schticky guest appearances by Albert Einstein and Josephine Baker.
Most of characters come off as fairly hackneyed — the rabbi, the doctor, the whorehouse piano player — but all the voices are beautiful. Manilow can write a good love song, and there are a few.
Still, the play — which features elaborate but cheap-looking sets by Beowolf Boritt and striking lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, as well as director Warren Carlyle’s simple but effective choreography — runs way too long, and sacrifices story, emotional depth and connection for musical numbers that quickly begin to sound alike.
It’s unfortunate that “Harmony,” which premiered in San Diego in 1997 and had an Off Broadway run in 2022, has opened in the middle of the Hamas-Israel war, when unspeakable violence against Jews is so fresh and antisemitism is on the rise around the world. For many, the singing and dancing towards the Holocaust and what seems like the impending deaths of the main characters will feel less than fun, and one of the many Nazi salutes in the direction of the audience will undoubtedly trigger trauma.