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Patti Dickey | Photo: Courtesy Image | June 24, 2013
In early September, the Alliance Theatre will debut the story of the Comedian Harmonists in Harmony—A New Musical. The original work is about the quest for harmony in the most discordant chapter in human history. It was written and scored by the legendary Barry Manilow and his longtime collaborator, songwriter and theater veteran Bruce Sussman. Here, the duo gives us the story behind the story.
How long have you two been working together?
BS: Today is the anniversary of our 41st year of working together.
BM: Within weeks of meeting, we started writing songs. I think I was still working with Bette Midler.
BS: We did jingles and wrote songs for musicals that we fantasized would be produced one day!
BM: Then, this terrible thing happened—I got a record deal and, suddenly, I was on the road and making albums. We were always writing for my albums and singles for other people—and we never had enough time to stop and do a play, which is what we really wanted. The singing and performing was a lucky accident for me, but I just wanted to be a songwriter.
BS: When I met Barry, he already had an off-Broadway musical running called The Drunkard at the West 13th Street Repertory Theatre. I was looking for someone to collaborate with when we took this amazing turn into pop music.
Didn’t you write a musical based on the song “Copacabana”?
BM: [Yes,] we wrote a two-act musical based on that song.
BS: We actually did a revision of it for some London producers. It was while we were doing the revision that we discovered what is now Harmony.
That sounds like an intriguing story.
BS: I read a review of a documentary airing at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater... Eberhard Fechner’s epic documentary Die Comedian Harmonists: Sechs Lebensläufe (Six Lives). It was accompanied by a compelling photograph of six young men, white-tie and tails, hair brilliantined, clearly 1920s or early 1930s. It was a four-hour documentary with English subtitles, and halfway through I was blown away with what I saw.
BM: The interesting part of the story of Harmony is that these men were the most popular singing group in all of Europe. They’d toured all over the world, and we’d never heard of them. And the reason we’d never heard of them is the story of Harmony.
Tell me about the group.
BS: Six young men—Jewish and gentile—comprised the group. Their act combined the sophisticated harmonies of a group like The Manhattan Transfer with the physical humor and slapstick of a group like the Marx Brothers—hence, [their name] Comedian Harmonists. They performed everything from Brahms to blues.
BM: They were the Beatles of Germany—and still are. They were the Backstreet Boys of their generation.
BS: To this day, they hold the record for sales in France—and that was when the industry was in its infancy. This is the musical we would like to go see, the one we wanted to write.
Why choose to debut in Atlanta?
BM: We thought regional theater was the way to go. The Alliance Theatre has a beautiful reputation. We just made a phone call to Susan Booth, this beautiful, encouraging and interested person.
BS: When we called, she answered the line saying, verbatim, ‘Please tell me you’re calling about Harmony.’ We didn’t have to go much further than that. By conversation’s end, we had an opening-night date!
BM: We trust that they’re going to help us put on the show we want. We’re thrilled with our director, Tony Speciale, and his take on this show.
BS: We love this theater, and we love Atlanta. We made the right choice.
What do you love about Atlanta?
BM: The audiences—they’re some of the best I’ve ever performed for! I always look forward to performing for them. I hope that they’ll check out Harmony.