We are seated in a room inside Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia. In the same building, in the Alliance Theatre, it is one hour before the curtain rises for the first performance of Harmony, a musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman that tells the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German group of six young men, three of them Jewish, that took the world by storm starting in the mid-1920’s until the Nazis banned them in 1934.
I had arrived in Atlanta the day before hoping to get an interview with the duo, but my timing was bad. Rehearsals and last minute preparations understandably precluded a meeting. This was, after all, a night that reflected two decades of anticipation – and double that if you count the years Manilow and Sussman have dreamed of putting out a musical. And then, in the eleventh hour, I am invited to the theatre. I get to add my own “being there” to the run up to this historic first curtain.
Manilow has been quoted as saying this play is the most rewarding creative endeavor of his career – a sweeping statement, to say the least. Manilow, who has said: “I am a musician. My passion for music has obliterated everything in its path for my entire life. Whenever there was a choice between music and anything else, music won hands down every time. No one person or material thing could ever come close to the feeling I get when the music is right.”
I’ve known true musicians in my life. I’ve lived with a few as housemates. They don’t play music — they live it. I am convinced that one day, when the genome project gets more sophisticated, we will see that there is a music DNA sequence. Manilow not only makes music, he very clearly is made OF it.
Bruce Sussman is a writer, a lyricist, a composer. While an internet search for Barry Manilow churns out enough material to overheat the CPU, one for Sussman returns sparse information. He is credited many places, his credits spread around the ‘net like stars in the milky way. He is not the household name that Manilow is, but he is every bit the talent.
Now, here they are, these two men of genius, sitting across from me, the clock ticking down like a NASA launch, T-minus 55 minutes to curtain on their long awaited musical. Two very handsome men. Do they look nervous? No, they are smiling, they are GLOWING – the way children do the night before a big holiday (the sort of holiday that entails gifts and much excitement).
Before arriving I had promised myself I would not write about how Manilow is dressed. Interviewers seem to focus on that right off. But, as I compose my mind for absorbing the moment and gathering information I cannot help but notice the exquisite cut and tailoring of his jacket and trousers. He must be the joy of any designer. Clothes drape gracefully over his lanky frame. My mother suddenly comes to mind. She was big on admonitions about keeping shoulders straight and not slumping. Boy, she would love Barry. One look at his slim build, though, and she’d have dispatched a big box of her famous cookies his way. (My mom loved to feed guys. I have met men who were friends in my school days who stumble trying to recall my name, but they instantly ask after my mother and make lovingly nostalgic comments about her baking.)
I look down at my shirt suddenly wondering if I have any obvious drips or crumbs, but no, I’m safe. I pull my shoulders back and sit up as straight as I can (I was, after all, named after Margery Wilson, the silent films actress and writer of several books about comportment for women. Chin up, shoulders straight was big with her, too. )
I glance at Sussman, who radiates amiability. If I met him on the street I might think him a professor, or physician. He wears the expression of someone with plenty of intellectual energy and curiosity. He is wearing a blue shirt that sets off his silvery hair. If my hair looked that nicely balanced I’d stop coloring it, I think. And then I’m chastising myself for letting my mind wander. I am here to find out about tonight’s musical, and to hear what they have to say about their long collaboration. These two men have between them over 80 years of endeavor in the world of music – Manilow with his genius for music and Sussman with his magic for lyrics.
They have been friends forever and it shows. They are friends who convey messages with the merest eye contacts. To hear them tell it they met while Sussman was in grad school and working part time as a waiter. Manilow was eking out a living as an audition accompanist and arranger. The first song they wrote together was the American Bandstand theme. That fact alone sets a marker on the timeline of their history. Many who will see the show tonight have no personal knowledge of that icon of teenage television. It was a staple of my life at one time. My mind wanders again. If I add up our ages the three of us have 196 years of life. I glance at the guys critically. They look great. If you don’t understand why that is a reassuring thought then you aren’t as old as I am.
Give yourself time.
I heard actor Bruce Willis say “No matter how old we get, I think all of us feel like 30 in our minds.” I agree. Now, when asked how long Harmony has been in the works, Bruce Sussman takes a turn on that path:
“When I met Barry, in 1872…”
We all laugh.
He continues,“We loved musicals. We told each other we wanted to write a Broadway musical.”
He adds, with a gleam in his eye, “But, something terrible happened that ruined our lives –- suddenly Barry had a hit record, Mandy, and he took off.”
Barry smiles slightly, rolls his eyes and mumbles, “Yeah, thank God,” makes eye contact with Sussman and picks up the narrative.
“We are kidding around about it, but we really did want to write Broadway musicals. But, you know, it takes about five years to write a musical and we just haven’t had the time to do it. My,” he hesitates for a moment and though he doesn’t add air quotes I imagine them, “‘pop career’ exploded and I was on tour, and making albums, and I never had the time to do it. We did manage to work on some movies and other projects together and collaborated on songs, but we never really had the time to work on the kind of musical we always dreamed of.”
The two men exchange glances and smiles.
“But, eventually we did find the time, and that’s Harmony.”
Sussman nods and says,
“Back in 1991, over my morning coffee, I read a review of a documentary playing at the Public Theater down on Lafayette Street in New York City—it is a very wonderful complex that does Shakespeare and new works of artistic excellence. The review was about a documentary made in the 1970’s and I remember the headline that made me look twice: “Eberhard Fechner’s Epic Documentary ‘The Comedian Harmonists’ at The Public”
He pauses thoughtfully, then continues.
“I’m staring at the paper. ’The Comedian Harmonists?’ Who were they? Eberhard Fechner? Who is he? And how is this ‘epic?’ So I went down to the Public. It was a very cold night, and it was a four hour German film with English subtitles, not my preferred cup of tea. But – I was riveted, absolutely riveted. Afterwards I went to a pay phone on Lafayette Street – remember pay phones? [we all laugh and nod, another reminder of our ages] – and I called Barry in California. I blathered. ‘I think I’ve found it, I think I’ve found it – the story we have been looking for.’ And he took the collaborative lead, as he is wont to do, and said ‘I have no idea what you are talking about, but go and get it.’”
Another glance passes between them and Manilow picks up the narrative.
“I think the most fascinating thing about them is that they were brilliant, they were huge” [he emphasizes “huge” with a graceful hand gesture] “in Germany, in Europe, in Australia – they even played Carnegie Hall. They made twelve movies, dozens of albums, and” (his voice drops as one does when awe tightens the throat, and he puts a pause between each word for effect) “we had never heard of them. These guys did the kind of group singing that we all love today –- The Beatles, Take 6, Manhattan Transfer –- and we had never heard of these people. How come we had never heard of these people? Well, that’s the story. Why we don’t know who these men are. We tell the whole story. We dove in, pretty deeply. We did research in Germany. I immersed myself in the music of the era.”
“This has been a long journey,” Sussman continues. “We had a workshop production, and then some problems along the way, and we just put it in the drawer for a while. And then fourteen or fifteen months ago Barry and I were talking and he said, “I want to see Harmony one more time before I croak.”
Manilow chuckles dryly.
“Really,” he nods, “That is what I said. ‘I want to see it one more time before I croak.’”
I sneak a critical look at Manilow. I study his expression after he says this. He looks great, no signs of being on the verge of croaking. At my age I keep track of these things. I am always rooting for the people who are a bit older than I to live long. It sets a standard I hope to follow.
I wrench my thoughts back in time to hear Sussman continue:
“So I said well, then, let’s do it. Let’s set aside Broadway for now and let’s go back to a regional theater where we were happy. We went down our little list of theaters with good reputations and things we were looking for, and the Alliance Theatre had checks in all the boxes that we thought were important. We looked up the Alliance Theatre on the internet and saw Susan Booth is the artistic director. We called the phone number and someone answered, ‘Alliance Theatre,’ and we said, ‘We’d like to speak to Susan Booth,’ and the person asked ‘Who’s calling,’ and I said ‘Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman,’ and the voice was, ‘Sure…’” [Sussman rolls his eyes and we all laugh] and they put us through. There was a little delay while Susan Booth got the call and then she picked up the phone and said, ‘Gentlemen, please tell me you are calling about Harmony?’ and we knew we had made the right choice. By the end of that conversation –no agents, no lawyers, no producers — and we had an opening night. It was, and has been, extraordinary.”
“This organization is classy,” Manilow continues. “It’s all about the work that’s being done. It’s got nothing to do with hit songs, or hit shows, they just want you to be happy and put on the show that you want. That is a dream come true for creatives, for authors like us.”
Sussman nods. “The collaborative spirit is so important. I said to someone the other night: there may be better lyricists, composers and book writers out there but there is one thing that Barry and I do that is as good as anyone else – we know how to collaborate.”
Manilow adds, “That is the most important thing. This show is a real challenge, it is a challenging show. Putting together one of my concerts is pretty difficult, but it’s just me; but this, this is a lot of people working together to put the show up. And that is what Bruce is talking about when he says collaboration. Everybody needs to be on their best, and we are all working on the same show. That’s what putting on a musical is all about. It’s all about collaboration.”
Sussman leans forward: “Dorothy Parker once said she hated writing, but she loved having written. We love writing stuff together, that is the most fun of all. We have a shorthand. We know we’re allowed to have a bad idea, no one’s going to come down on you for it, as a matter of fact sometimes good ideas come from the bad ideas, so that is what we do and we know how to do it.”
When asked which song was the first they penned for Harmony Manilow answers:
“Interestingly, the first song that I wrote for the show – I wrote the melody – is the last song. It wasn’t the first song, which is the title song. I wrote the last song first. Bruce gave me a very rough outline for the book. At the end he gave me one paragraph about what that song should do. We called it ‘Stars in the Night,’ and I was off. I was off writing. I wrote what I thought was a decent melody to end the show with, and I just knew he was going to put some great words to it.”
Sussman laughs. “This is nothing new, us starting at the end. We wrote a song together – Copacabana.” [We all laugh. Yes, I’ve heard of it.] “We started with the end ‘Don’t fall in love.’ We said there are all the pop songs that say fall in love, but you never hear one that says DON’T fall in love. So we decided to go with that. And we often start at the end.”
There is a lovely song in the show sung by two women, the two wives, “Where You Go.” Is there a story with that?
Sussman gives a thoughtful nod. “It is such an interesting song.”
Manilow interjects, “It is such an interesting song, it’s so brilliant, because it is two couples, they are coming from two different [and he stresses the word different] points of view. One of the guys, one of the characters, is named Chopin. I based one of my pop ballads on a Chopin prelude [he is referring to his hit, “Could It Be Magic”], and I based this song on another Chopin prelude.”
Sussman leans forward. “When you see the show you’ll see. This moment in the play, the two actresses are in two different hotel rooms side by side, each singing the song from their point of view. That moment is what musical theater can do that no other art form can do. And when you come up with something like that, when the idea occurs, it is such a gift; you realize you are in the zone, in the musical theater zone. This is what this art form can do like no other.”
Manilow agrees. “It is so perfect, you know. One woman is saying ‘where you go I will stay with you,’ and the other is leaving her husband, she is saying ‘where you go you will never forget me.’ It is just so beautiful.”
Sussman explains. “This one couple, this one character in our play, Chopin, in life he was married twice. But, for the purpose of our play I decided it would be better for him not to marry twice. What I chose to do is merge his two wives into one character, Ruth. She is a Jewish woman, and because I wasn’t sure of the exact story – what happened and why – since they are both fictionalized anyway. But, I have to tell you – I have to have a why for everything. I have to know what color are your socks. [We all laugh, and Barry nods knowingly.] So I created this character and I thought ‘what’s her name?’ Now I live in a 15 story apartment building, and in the apartment directly above mine is a woman, Ruth, I have known for almost 40 years, I grew up around her. She’s a survivor. And a magnificent woman. Barry knows her, too. I’m kind of rocking in my desk chair and I’m looking up at the ceiling and I think Ruth! Yes! A Jewish woman, she lived in this period, courageous, the character’s name is Ruth!”
Sussman continues. “If you are familiar with the Old Testament book of Ruth you know there is a passage ‘Where you go I will go’ – and that is how the song was born. It involves this amazing woman. There are two couples, and they are singing this song from two points of view.”
Manilow looks transfixed. “It is just beautiful. It is one of my favorite moments in the play.”
Asked if any of the group were still living, or if they had contacted them Manilow exhales an ironic laugh.
“You know, I live in Palm Springs; I have lived there for over fifteen years now. While we were doing research we found out that all of the guys had survived the war. One of the brothers of one of the group mentioned to us that Roman Cycowski, we call him ‘Rabbi’ in the play, was still living, but he didn’t know where. Well, you know, escaping Germany in those days – we had no idea if he had gone to Israel or New York, or Paris?”
Manilow pauses, then continues, “While I was writing this stuff, you know, I got a call from the A Cappella Society of America, they had heard I was working on this play about the Comedian Harmonists. They wanted to know if I would present their award to Roman Cycowski. I said ‘Sure, great, I’d be happy to do it. Where does he live?’ and they said ‘Palm Springs.’” Manilow pops his eyes in wonder and laughs, doing a double take. “And I said, ‘Where in Palm Springs?’ and it was four blocks from my house! For the past fifteen years I had been walking my dogs past this man’s home and I had no idea. I’d been sitting four blocks away from him writing songs for his character, ‘Every Single Day,’ and ‘Stars in the Night’ and had no idea, So, I put on my suit and went over there, walked over there and (Manilow’s voice rasps emotionally) and there he was. And right next to him was his wife, his wife Mary who we write about, and her character has the most beautiful songs to sing. It was so neat, [Manilow shakes his head in wonder] so neat, so amazingly neat. Talking to him was such an experience. He said to me ‘If they hadn’t destroyed us, we would’ve been bigger than the Beatles.’ He’d been a vaudevillian and he still acted like one. Sharp, funny, really funny. It turns out he had for years been the cantor at the Palm Springs synagogue.”
Sussman interjects, “He was the cantor at the Temple Isaiah synagogue in Palm Springs, and for years while he was there he was the oldest working cantor in the United States. I spoke to him by phone; what a character, he had been in vaudeville and even at 90-something he was still a ham – a kosher one, but a real ham. He lived to be 98. But, you know, he had trained as a rabbi. At the end of our conversation he felt the need to give a blessing, and he said ‘I am a very old man. I wish for you as long and healthy a life as I have. And when you are my age I hope you will still be collecting royalties.’”
Manilow fixes a glance on his friend. “What did you say then?”
Sussman shrugs and extends his arms palms up, “Well, I said “Amen!”
Asked with which character in the play they feel the most kinship Sussman ponders and then answers
“On a superficial level, I guess Mary.”
There is a puzzled silence. Manilow speaks up,
“I think she means which character would you be.”
There is a long interruption of laughs, giggles, hoots and snarky comments which I shall not include out of deference to our collective dignity.
“Oh,” Sussman says, composing himself. “Harry.”[Frommermann]
Manilow does not hesitate at all when the attention shifts to him.
“Chopin.” [Erwin “Chopin” Bootz, was the pianist for the group. Are we surprised by Manilow’s choice?]
Asked how much poetic license they needed to take in writing the play Manilow answers:
“Oh, much. Much, much, much. The story was HUGE.” [Yes, he spoke in caps there]. “It covers years and year and years. We had to whittle it down into a two act musical. It’s weird to write a musical without a book, you know, most people base it on a book. This group had a long history, a long life, a long story, and we needed to whittle it down to a two act musical.”
“It wasn’t so much that we changed things, as that we had to leave many things out. As Barry says it was a massive story, and we could write another show just based on the stuff we didn’t tell. For example, one of our characters emigrated to America with a letter of reference in his pocket signed and written by Albert Einstein. That was Erich Colin. So,” and here Sussman looks devilish, “in the NINE hour version of our show we will be able to put back all those people we left out.”
[I’m thinking “mini-series,” but I don’t say it out loud.]
Asked what impact they think, or hope, Harmony will have on musical theater Manilow answers with an enthusiastic nod. It is clear his passion has been engaged.
“The musicals that we love are not the musicals that we see anymore. I mean, we’re just old farts. Give me “The Most Happy Fella,” give me “Carousel” or any one of those and I am a happy guy. These days, shows like Legally Blonde are god-awful successful. I wouldn’t know how to write that stuff. But, you know, I hope maybe, maybe, maybe [and he stresses that last maybe with hand gestures and a lean forward] we can reintroduce people to this style of musical.”
There is a thoughtful moment of silence broken by Sussman.
“I am fond of telling a story about Oscar Hammerstein, who is one of my heroes, about opening night for his ‘Oklahoma’ which he wrote with Richard Rodgers. It was the first in a string of golden musicals in that golden age that they wrote together. And on opening night he went for a walk with his wife in Central Park, because he was nervous – just like we are – and he said to his wife ‘I hope they like it.’ And she replied ‘Of course they will. And he said ‘You don’t understand. I hope they like it – because this is what I like. And if they like it, I get to write more.’ And that is how we feel, Barry and I really hope the audiences like our show.”
Now the clock has ticked down. Curtain is about to rise. Manilow and Sussman acknowledge the time has come to excuse themselves.
Manilow clasps hands. “Now we need to go find our seats. But, first” and he grins at Sussman, “I think we need to locate our boxes of Kleenex.”
We all laugh.
NOTE: “Harmony” runs through October 6 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia and will play at Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, California March 12, 2014 to April 13, 2014.
“Harmony: A New Musical.” Previews Sept. 6-14. Opening night Sept. 15. Runs through Oct. 6. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (No shows 2:30 p.m., Sept. 7, and 7:30 p.m., Oct. 6). $30-$75. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta.404-733-5000