BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
Drift back a bit and recall 1992. Bill Clinton was in the White House, “Basic Instinct” and “Batman Returns” were box office hits and Boyz II Men had the top single for the year, “End of the Road.”
Also that year, Barry Manilow and his long-time friend and collaborator, Bruce Sussman, came up with an idea for a musical that would tell the story of a group of German singers who had been hugely popular across Europe and around the world in the 1920s and ’30s. They even played at Carnegie Hall.
Today, two decades later, Bill Clinton is a former president, “Basic Instinct” and “Batman Returns” are fading memories and Boyz II Men is a musical footnote. Meanwhile, Manilow and Sussman’s idea – and their obsession – has finally been transformed into a musical-comedy, “Harmony,” opening in early September at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.
“It just wouldn’t leave us alone,” Manilow said, explaining why he and Sussman have spent years developing the project. “There have been some rough roads and there was a time that we had to just put it away … But ‘Harmony’ wants to be seen and told.”
The musical, music by Manilow, book and lyrics by Sussman, and directed by Drama Desk award nominee Tony Speciale, focuses on the “Comedian Harmonists.” They were a talented sextet of singers – some Jewish, some not – who were the hot and happening “boy band” of the era.
They sold millions of records, starred in a dozen films and packed the houses of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe. Unfortunately, they rose to fame just as Hitler and the Nazis were taking control of Germany and the talented group of performers was crushed by the fascist state.
“They were doing complicated stuff,” Sussman said. “They were funny and very unique.”
And, yet, over time they were almost completely forgotten.
“The most amazing thing is they were huge and we had never heard of them,” Manilow said during a recent interview with the Atlanta Jewish Times. “These people were the architects of the kind of music we had heard for years … they had the most inventive arrangements; how come we had never heard of them?”
Sussman first stumbled across the group in the early 1990s when he spotted an advertisement in the New York Times for a documentary about the singers. He saw the film, walked out of the theater and immediately called Manilow.
The friends would eventually agree they had the makings of a musical and, after lots of talk and research, they came up with what they term a “spine” sentence to focus their ideas.
“This would be a show about the quest for harmony,” Sussman said, “during the most discordant chapter of history.”
It would take years of effort, including an earlier production in the late ’90s that opened to middling reviews, financial troubles, and a protracted legal battle, before Manilow and Sussman claimed rights to the musical and set it on its current course.
It’s ended up at The Alliance because the men decided a well-known and successful regional theater seemed the perfect place to launch the production. Susan Booth, the artistic director at The Alliance, couldn’t be happier.
“Our audiences have long demonstrated a real appetite for musicals of spine and substance,” Booth said. “They love the beauty of the form and they love the challenge of a narrative that’s deeply, truly about something. ‘Harmony’ is utterly beautiful in terms of sound and utterly soul-satisfying in terms of substance.”
Manilow shares Booth’s thoughts on musical theater and, somewhat surprisingly, finds much more satisfaction in writing for the stage than creating pop hits that have made him a star.
“Pop is always about I love you, or I miss you; and now with rap, I hate you,” a chuckling Manilow said. “Being able to write about situations and characters is so much more fun and inventive.”
Sussman, meanwhile, found writing “Harmony” to be a very personal journey, especially because he’s Jewish.
“This isn’t a Holocaust play, but it does take place as the storm is approaching,” he said. “Storytelling itself is an act of bearing witness … and it’s incumbent upon us as Jews to pick up the torch” and never forget.
For her part, The Alliance’s Booth is thrilled she’s had the opportunity to work with Manilow and Sussman.
“Here are a couple of guys with about eight careers worth of accomplishments and plaudits between them, right? And how do they behave,” she asked. “Like utterly humble devotees of this art form. They are generous and supportive collaborators and they are hands on artists with diehard work ethics.”
Booth adds that what matters most to the two men is creating an evening for audiences that is transcendent.
“That’s what they care about,” she said. “Not ego, not self, just that. If I could clone them, I would populate entire cities with them.”
Want to go?
“Harmony” will play at The Alliance Theatre from Sept. 6 through Oct. 6. Opening night is Sept. 15. Tickets start at $30 and are available at The Woodruff Arts Center Box Office or by calling (404) 733-5000. Tickets are also available online at www.alliancetheatre.org/harmony.