How strange and, in the end, how ironic that a German singing group, founded in the chaotic last years of the Weimar Republic and forcibly disbanded less than 10 years later, should call itself the Comedian Harmonists.
Yet on the evidence of the Barry Manilow musical “Harmony” — for which, yes, he wrote the songs (along with his longtime lyricist, Bruce Sussman) — the internationally famous all-male group had the “harmonist” part of their name just right. As rendered by Manilow in an often skillful, surprisingly theatrical score, the men’s tightly spaced six-part singing, sometimes reminiscent of barbershop, sometimes jazz, sometimes operetta on LSD, is so dense as to seem geological, its pitches heaving and twisting toward some new stratum of sound.
But comedians? No. Neither the guys nor the grim and eventually bludgeoning show have a gift for levity.
You might wonder why the show, at least, should. Though its title makes it sound as if “Harmony” would be calm and golden, its story isn’t an uplifting one. The group, consisting by chance of three Jews (one of whom marries a gentile) and three gentiles (one of whom marries a Jew), inevitably falls victim to the antisemitic restrictions of National Socialism. Soon the brotherhood, symbolized in sound by their questing choral closeness, goes sour — a story that, to be effective, needs vivid contrast so we know what’s been lost.
But the version of “Harmony” that opened on Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, after a potholed, decades-long trek to Broadway, makes a beeline for the bleakest parts of the tale and then bleakens them further. Sussman’s script, relentlessly focused on historical trauma, takes reasonable dramatic license with the group’s actual history, but only in one direction: darker. And though Warren Carlyle’s production is smart and slick, it traps the tale in a figurative and literal glassy black box (by Beowulf Boritt) from which only pathos escapes.
Even the opening scenes, which might have been upbeat, feel booby-trapped by the invention of a narrator looking back from 1988. He is Rabbi (Chip Zien), the last surviving Harmonist, who now lives in California, plagued by guilt. The attempt to lighten him by making him talk like a latter-day Tevye, with Yiddish inflections (“A cockamamie name, no?”) and cute codger phrases (“We were hot as horseradish”), feels both distracting and patronizing. As his twinkliness turns to anguish — and despite Zien’s forceful performance — the prominence of the character turns “Harmony” into a passive show about memory at the expense of the actual action.
The time could be better spent individuating the six-headed protagonist. As it is, each Harmonist gets just one or two traits. The younger version of Rabbi (Danny Kornfeld) is indecisive. Harry (Zal Owen) is a musical genius. Chopin (Blake Roman) is a hothead. Erich (Eric Peters) has secrets and a saying for every occasion. Bobby (Sean Bell) is all about business. And Lesh (Steven Telsey) — well, the authors seem to have run out of traits. He’s just Bulgarian.
When working with the music, that’s sufficient; blending, not standing out, is the hallmark of the style. (Manilow’s vocal arrangements, written with John O’Neill, the show’s music director, are marvelous.) But as the story spreads from unison group mechanics to separate life conflicts, the texture thins to the point of flimsiness.
Given that Young Rabbi is so prominent in the back story, it’s a problem, for instance, that his courtship of the gentile Mary (Sierra Boggess) is mostly a mixtape of banalities. (“This is our time!”) Only Mary, in choosing a life that may include persecution and exile, carries enough conflict to be meaningfully characterized in song. Manilow, and Boggess, come through, with the gorgeous “And What Do You See?”
The other semi-fleshed-out story has an even bigger problem than lopsidedness. Chopin, whose real name was Erwin Bootz, marries Ruth, a Jew (and a firebrand Bolshevik to boot). That we never really understand the strife between them may be the result of conflation: Ruth (Julie Benko) is a composite of three of Bootz’s actual wives. No wonder she’s blurry — and worse, sacrificial. I feel I must spoil a plot point by revealing that, despite the overwhelming atmosphere of tragedy throughout, this invented Ruth is the only character who does not survive the war, a tensioning convenience that is also a red herring.
Wherever it can — in the plot, in the characterizations and in the sometimes bombastic orchestrations for a heavily synthed and amped orchestra of nine — “Harmony” wields a truncheon instead of the needle it needs. It might have helped if the supposedly comic numbers were actually funny, but neither Manilow and Sussman nor Carlyle excel at that here. The lighthearted charm song (“Your Son Is Becoming a Singer”), the slapstick centerpiece (“How Can I Serve You, Madame?”) and the second-act opener (“We’re Goin’ Loco!” — which features the Harmonists and Josephine Baker in a “Copacabana”-like samba) are all manic duds.
Only when the story offers a song hook that is also a dramatic one does the attempt at humor pay off, in part by offering Sussman opportunities for sharp lyrics. The title number introduces the musical style of the show but also the characters’ ideals. (“In this joint/All encounters with counterpoint/End in harmony.”) And an anti-Nazi satire called “Come to the Fatherland,” perfectly staged by Carlyle as a human marionette show, has the two-sided stickiness of real wit: “The Führer has decreed:/If you’re Anglo-Saxon/And your hair is flaxen/We want you to breed!”
Still, “Harmony” is no “Cabaret.” It doesn’t take the risk of letting you think for yourself; everything is a billboard. The Nazis — including some who scream “Save Germany from the Jews” in the aisles of the theater, an unnecessary touch — are generic slimeballs. The Harmonists are over-animated, smiling for all they’re worth, except when they’re furious or harrowed. (Having missed a chance to alter history in 1935, Rabbi sings the bathetic “Threnody” 53 years later.) The wives are uniformly noble, facing deprivation and worse.
None of this is as interesting as what actually occurred. The lives of the Harmonists were mostly full and long. (Roman Cycowski, the real “Rabbi,” made it to 97.) Instead of miring the show in horrified memory, what “Harmony” might have considered with less contortion is the accommodation we make to history as it happens. I wish it had followed through on the question Mary asks while deciding whether to marry Rabbi: “Tell me how do we live/In a world that is crumbling away/And be happy, as we are today?” But we never see that happiness.
Instead, like a lot of current theater that hitches a ride on the Holocaust for dramatic propulsion, “Harmony” makes guilt and anguish its through line, unintentionally suggesting that survival and the solace of music are somehow undeserved. Luckily, after a rough ride of an evening, the finale — an intensely chromatic song called “Stars in the Night” — offers exquisite evidence to the contrary.
At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Manhattan; harmonyanewmusical.com. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.