They may be the most famous international superstars you have never heard of, thanks to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis trying to eliminate their very existence.
But in the musical “Harmony,” which premiered in New York this week, Barry Manilow and his longtime songwriting partner Bruce Sussman are trying to give the six young men of the Comedian Harmonists their rightful place in history by telling their story.
It is a project they have been working on for decades, but “Harmony’s” relevance now is chilling, with war raging in Ukraine and innocent lives being disrupted by hate.
“It sounds very current,” Manilow said in an interview during a rehearsal last month.
“I think one of the many joys about doing this show now is that it seems to be resonating more than ever,” Sussman added.
“There are actually moments in the show where I fear that people are going to think I’m writing to the headlines. These things were written, some of them years ago, and it’s just now that they seem like they’re taken from the front page of the paper or your lead story on CNN,” he said.
Three of the Comedian Harmonists were Jewish, three were gentile. They were shut down by Hitler, their 12 films and many records ordered burned and destroyed. All men scattered 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 poignancy of these men not being able to imagine a dictator like Hitler could kill innocent people the way he did is a bone chilling parallel to current events, as Vladimir Putin appears to target civilians - children and women - in his own bloodthirsty quest for land and power.
When the character known as “Rabbi,” played by Chip Zien, belts out a painful line “Why?” the audience does not have to be transported back almost a century to connect with the wanton evil. It is happening as we speak in Ukraine.
“It’s the same hate, just different uniforms,” is one of many lines in the musical with that tragically timely meaning.
The group was officially shut down by the Nazis not only because some of the members were Jewish, but because the singers were labeled “degenerate” and censored, also the kind of tactic one sees today in Putin’s Russia.
‘This is the kind of Broadway musical that I always wanted to write’
Sussman wrote the lyrics, and Manilow wrote the music.
“It’s my proudest moment as a songwriter,” said Manilow.
“This is what I started off wanting to be. I wanted to be a Broadway songwriter and an arranger of pop music. That was it. And here it is. It’s taken a little while longer, a little longer than I thought it would, but this is the kind of Broadway musical that I always wanted to write. It’s got every style of music that I have always loved. It’s not just one style. You would think, ‘Oh, Barry Manilow, it’s going to be all ballads.’ It’s not. Every song is totally different than the one before it,” Manilow elaborated.
“This is the Barry I want everybody to know about,” Sussman chimed in.
The two have been collaborators for 50 years, writing one of Manilow’s most enduring hits together: “Copacabana.”
“‘Copacabana’ was an ice cream sundae. It was frothy, and it was fun to do, and it was stylistic, stylish. It was also a very weird pop song because there was nothing like it on the radio. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why it was as successful as it was. This is – we have to put ourselves into the head of 1920s, 1930s Germany between the wars,” explained Sussman.
“We talk about the depth of this piece. It’s not a serious evening. The first act is as up, and happy, and funny, and full of energy as any Broadway musical that I’ve ever seen. Just on the second act, it starts to go dark,” said Manilow.
The idea came decades ago after Sussman watched a documentary about the Comedian Harmonists and called Manilow to say he found the musical they should write. Before Manilow became a pop star in the early 1970s with his first hit, “Mandy,” the collaborators and friends wanted to be the next Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Both native New Yorkers and Jewish, they said they connected with this story immediately.
“We know these people. I mean, there are Jewish characters and gentile 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 happened to also be terrifically talented,” said Sussman.
“We know what means stuff to them. Yeah, it was deep. That part was a deep experience. Bruce had to go way deeper than I did since he’s the book writer, the story writer. But I had to do my own work and find melodies that made sense in this world of Germany and Jewish,” Manilow said.
And to those Manilow melodies, the characters sing of impending doom the audience knows is coming: “Darkness grows. The world turns cold. And still there glows the light. Heaven knows. What hope they hold tonight.”
For more on this topic, CNN’s Dana Bash presents “Being…Barry Manilow,” airing Saturday at 11pm ET on CNN.
A previous 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.