Barry Manilow explains why the musical scene from World War II is eerily relevant today

But in the musical “Harmony,” which premiered in New York this week, Barry Manilow and his longtime songwriting partner Bruce Sussman try to give the six young men from Comedian Harmonists their rightful place in history by telling their story.

It’s a project they’ve been working on for decades, but the relevance of “Harmony” is now shocking, with war raging in Ukraine and innocent lives being disrupted by hatred.

“It sounds very topical,” Manilow said in an interview during a rehearsal last month.

“I think one of the many joys of doing this show now is that it seems to be awakening more than ever before,” Sussman added.

“There are actually moments in the show where I’re afraid people’s going to think I’m writing for the headlines. These things were written, some of them years ago, and it’s right now that they seem to be is taken from the front page of the newspaper or your main story on CNN, “he said.

Three of the comedian harmonists were Jews, three were non-Jews. They were shut down by Hitler, their 12 films and many records were ordered burned and destroyed. All the men dispersed and fled, and one of their Jewish wives was taken by the Third Reich and never seen again.

But before it got to that, the men, worldwide sensations in the early 1930s, were in New York playing Carnegie Hall and had the opportunity to stay in America, but decided to return to Germany.

The gripping knowledge that these men are incapable of imagining a dictator like Hitler could kill innocent people, as he did, is a stark parallel to current events, as Vladimir Putin seems to target civilians – children and women – in his own bloodthirsty quest for land and power.

As the character known as “Rabbi”, played by Chip Zien, performs a painful retort “Why?” the audience does not have to be transported back nearly a century to connect with the ruthless evil. It happens while we are talking in Ukraine.

“It’s the same hatred, just different uniforms,” ​​is one of many remarks in the musical with the tragically timely meaning.

The group was officially closed by the Nazis, not only because some of the members were Jews, but because the singers were branded as “degenerate” and censored, also the kind of tactics seen today in Putin’s Russia.

‘This is the kind of Broadway musical I’ve always wanted to write’

Sussman wrote the lyrics, and Manilow wrote the music.

“It’s my proudest moment as a songwriter,” Manilow said.

“That’s what I started to want to be. I wanted to be a Broadway songwriter and pop music arranger. That was it. And here it is. It’s taken a little longer, a little longer than I thought it would, but this is the kind of Broadway musical that I’ve always wanted to write. It has all the styles of music that I’ve always loved. It’s not just one style. “It’s not. Every song is completely different from the one before,” Manilow elaborated.

Barry Manilow, who performed here in 2019, wrote the music for

“This is the Barry I want everyone to know about,” Sussman said.

The two have been collaborators for 50 years and have written one of Manilow’s most enduring hits together: “Copacabana”.

“‘Copacabana’ was an ice cream cone. It was frothy and it was fun to make and it was stylistic, stylish. It was also a very strange pop song because there was nothing like it on the radio. Maybe that’s one of the reasons “It was as successful as it was. It is – we have to get into the head of 1920s, 1930s Germany between the wars,” Sussman explained.

“We’re talking about the depth of this piece. It’s not a serious night. The first act is as up, and happy and funny and full of energy as any Broadway musical I’ve ever seen. Just in the second act, it starting to get dark, “Manilow said.

The idea arose decades ago after Sussman saw a documentary about Comedian Harmonists and called Manilow to say he had found the musical they were going to write. Before Manilow became a pop star in the early 1970s with his first hit, “Mandy”, the collaborators and friends wanted to become the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Both Native New Yorkers and Jews said they were connected to this story right away.

“We know these people. I mean, there are Jewish characters and non-Jewish characters. We certainly know the Jewish characters. These are people we grew up with. These are people in our family. These were people in our neighborhoods, who also happened to be incredibly talented, “Sussman said.

“We know what matters to them. Yes, it was deep. That part was a deep experience. Bruce had to go much deeper than I did as he is the book author, the history writer. But I had to do my own work and find melodies that made sense in this world of Germany and Jews, “Manilow said.

And to these Manilow tunes, the characters sing about the impending doom that the audience knows is coming: “The darkness is growing. The world is getting cold. And still the light is glowing there. The sky knows it. What hope they have tonight.”

For more on this topic, CNN’s Dana Bash presents “Being … Barry Manilow,” which airs Saturday at 7 p.m. 23:00 ET on CNN.

An earlier version of this story used an image that was incorrectly labeled as the musical group The Comedian Harmonists. The image has been corrected to reflect the actual group.

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