Back in 1997, I drove down to the La Jolla Playhouse to see the world premiere of a new musical called Harmony, which hoped one day to make it to Broadway. It was based on a real-life troupe, the Comedian Harmonists, who were a mixed-religion group (though mostly Jewish) of comics and "close harmony" singers in pre-war Germany of the late-20s and early 1930s. They were hugely popular -- not only in German and then throughout Europe, but they toured the U.S. and even made 21 movies, all of this under obviously profoundly difficult conditions. Eventually, they fled to America, though some returned to Germany.
The individuals all survived the war, but became largely forgotten. However, in 1975 a 4-hour documentary was made about them in Germany that renewed awareness and interest. They even won an Echo Award in 1998 from the country's record academy, Deutsche Phonoakademie. And an award-winning film, The Harmonists, was released in 1997, which was named Outstanding Feature Film at the German Film Awards.
(You can hear an audio clip of the group here. It's in German, and there's a clip of them singing the same song in impeccable English, but this version if sung faster and more intricately.)
That 1997 of the film was the same year I headed to see the stage musical based on the group. Making it all the more intriguing was that the score of the show was written by, of all people, Barry Manilow, with the book and lyrics by his writing partner Bruce Sussman.
The musical Harmony was quite good. In fact, the first act was absolutely wonderful. There were some issues in the second act that wasn't as cohesive, though it was still enjoyable -- and given that this was the show's very first effort, it was an impressive start that I'm sure could be addressed and fixed "on the road," which is what happens with pro-Broadway tryouts.
The cast was strong, as well. I remember being particularly pleased to find when I opened the program that one of the female leads was played by Rebecca Luker, a wonderful performer whose many credits included starring as the lead on Broadway in the revivals of The Sound of Music, The Music Man, and Show Boat. I didn't recognize other names at the time, but several went on to much success. Danny Burstein was nominated just last year for a Tony Award in a revival of Follies (and years later, he and Ms. Luker got married...) and Casey Nicholaw became a Tony-nominated choreographer for Monty Python's Spamalot and then won a Tony for co-directing Book of Mormon, which he also choreographed (and was nominated for), and received Tony nominations, too, as choreographer-director of The Drowsy Chaperone -- which featured Danny Burstein in the cast.
But what stood out most was how good the score was. I don't mean it as a back-handed compliment when I say that it didn't sound at all like a "Barry Manilow" musical. Barry Mannilow's pop music is all personal taste -- some people love it, some not. My point is that he sublimated himself and clearly chose to write music out of his comfort zone, songs that fit the story and characters and time-period spot-on, rather than music that he'd been writing for years and could easily have done comfortably. If you heard an album of Barry Manilow pop music, there's a reasonable chance you could pick it out as "Hey, that's Barry Manilow." If you heard the score of Harmony, it's not likely you would have. It -- and Bruce Sussman's lyrics -- were wonderful.
In fact, for many years, Manilow wouldn't even perform the songs from Harmony in his concerts. He wanted to keep them separate, for people to hear Harmony and think of it was a real Broadway musical, not a "Barry Manilow show." Alas, the musical hasn't made it to Broadway yet. It's possible that they haven't solved the second act to their satisfaction, though I've read of financing hurdles. I have no idea, though I keep reading that Barry Manilow continues to have hope that Harmony will make it to Broadway. Obviously he hopes that, but from what I saw back in 1997, he has every reason for that to be a realistic hope, at least on creative grounds.
Eventually, Manilow did face reality and recorded an album with songs from his two musicals (the other being Copacabana, that did make it to Broadway). I assume his decision to finally record songs from Harmony himself was to keep attention on the show and also let the songs finally have a life. And he does now often perform one of the songs from Harmony in his concerts, as well, a number titled "Every Single Day."
In fairness, despite what I said above, "Every Single Day," is the one song in the show that does sound like a Barry Manilow Song. It's a power ballad, as the expression goes. But just know that it fits the moment in the show so perfectly that my recollection at the time of first hearing it in San Diego wasn't that it stood out as incongruous, like, "Oh, yeah, okay, there's his Barry Manilow number," but rather a love song that was absolutely right for the character and what he needed to say right then. The musical arrangement was also much more subtle, intimate, and deeply personal than the one now-used (and used appropriately, I think) for a Big Barry Manilow Moment in his concert that gets his fans cheering. It sounded enough like something from the 1930s, not a modern-day, 1997 chart-buster.
Plus, it's really a wonderful song. Forget the bombast of the arrangement. It's a heart-felt number with rich music and tender lyrics. Moreover, there's a very interesting thing about watching Barry Manilow perform it, compared to how he performs all his other songs. If you didn't know the history, you might not notice, but it's there for all to see. When Barry Manilow does "Every Single Day," he doesn't "sing" it -- he performs it, as if it was being done on stage in the musical of Harmony. His pauses and expressions and body language aren't the Concert Manilow emoting for the crowd, much as you might think it. That's an actor in a musical bringing the number to life, once again.
If you like Barry Manilow, but have never heard "Every Single Day," I think you'll love this. If you're not a Barry Manilow fan, put aside the big arrangement as much as you can and listen to it as the song it is from a Broadway musical. But above all, as anyone watches this, it should be clear -- even from the fact that he takes the time to simply set up the song -- how meaningful the number is to the performer singing it.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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