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6 questions for Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman on 'Harmony'

by Take Two®

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(L-R): Liberty Cogen, Lindsay Moore, Matt Bailey, Douglas Williams, Shayne Kennon, Chris Dwan, (kneeling front) Will Taylor and Will Blum in “Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. Directed by Tony Speciale, “Harmony” plays March 4 through April 13, 2014, at the CTG/Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets may be purchased online at CenterTheatreGroup.org or by calling (213) 972-4400 or in person at the CTG box office, located at the Ahmanson Theatre. Contact: CTGMedia@CenterTheatreGroup.org/(213) 972-7376 Photo by Craig Schwartz Craig Schwartz

Now to a musician you'll probably never hear at South by Southwest, even though he's an international star who has sold 80 million records: Barry Manilow. 

Many of Manilow's hits were penned with the help of his good friend, Bruce Sussman. Take Two recently had the chance to talk with them about their latest collaboration, a musical titled "Harmony" on now at the Ahmanson Theatre.


Interview Highlights:

On what drew them to the story on the Comedian Harmonists, the subjects of "Harmony":

BM: "What's interesting to us about the Comedian Harmonists is that nobody ever knew them and they were the architects of the kind of music that we all love. From The Manhattan Transfer to Take 6 to The High-Lows and they were funny. And nobody had ever, we had never heard of them and if you ask the person on the street they had never heard of them. But if you ask people in Germany, they are the Beatles of Germany, still to this day." 

Bruce Sussman: "Why we didn't know who they were is the story and this would be musical about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history. That was very appealing to us and excited us." 

On what happened to the Comedian Harmonists because of their faith:

BS: "The group formed in the very tumultuous years known as the Weimar period in Germany, between the wars. The legendary hyperinflation, millions of marks to buy a slice of bread, people wallpaper their walls with money because it wasn't worth anything. And out of all this came these six remarkable young men from very diverse backgrounds, cultures, social strata, they got together to create a new brand of entertainment. There was a Bulgarian singing waiter, a Polish rabbi, a German doctor, an Italian opera singer, a self-taught musical genius and a brother pianist."

"They rehearsed in abandoned subway stops because the acoustics were good and rocketed to fame. Sold millions of records, toured the world, played the most prestigious concert houses in the world, from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonic, performed with the greats of their day Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker, made over a dozen movies. What I just described to you is our first act. Their confrontation with the collision course with history is our second act."

What happened to this group, because they had Jewish members?:

BS: "Well, the Nuremberg Laws happened and the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jews of citizenship, Jews could no longer perform in film and education and various fields and they actually got exemptions from the law because they were so wildly popular and the Third Reich thought, at least in the early months of the Third Reich, they thought well if people are afraid of us, look at this, this is a great advertisement for Germany. So they escaped some of the initial restraints put upon Jew, but that gradually changed." 

On what it's like to write songs for this musical:

BM: "This was a very deep experience for me. I found myself soaking in the world of the '20s and the '30s in Germany. It was very deep. I had the blues for a long time having to go into this terrible world and try to write funny songs and uplifting songs and I know a lot about the music from the '40s so you give me something about the '40s and I'm fine. I didn't know too much about the music from the '20s and the '30s so I had to go digging and figure out what the heck they were doing back then in Germany and so when you do that you have to go dive in into a pretty rotten world." 

On the long road from conception to showtime:

BM: "You know, we just didn't give up. Every show goes through a lot of problems. We went to through all of them. If there was a problem, we would have it. Only business. It never had anything to do with the play and after a while Bruce and I just said, let's put it away. It's too hard. When you write something like this you put your heart and soul into it. I can't say I put my heart and soul into all the pop stuff, but it wouldn't go away. It was yelling, 'Don't forget me! Don't forget me!'

"So we decided instead of going to the big, $10 million Broadway version of this show, why don't we go if a regional theatre would like to help us put this on just so I could see it one more time before I croak. I just wanted to see it one more time. So we decided without the agents, without the lawyers, without anybody, Bruce and I just called the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

"We called the main number one afternoon. We heard this gal named Susan Booth, who ran the place and she said, 'Who's calling?' And I said 'Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman.' And she connected us and Susan must've been told who was on the phone and she answered the phone and this is a quote, she said, 'Gentleman, please tell me you're calling about 'Harmony.' And both of us went for the Kleenex because it has been a real rough road.'

BS: "And an hour later we had an opening night. We started moving along with the Alliance and the phone rang and it was the Ahmanson Theatre saying, 'We hear you're doing 'Harmony' at the Alliance, we've heard great things about it, would you be interested in a co-production?' Hello, yes! And that's why we're here. 

On what's next for him:

BM: "I've got another pop album in the works right now. Listen, there's always the next one with me. I have like five. I'll be on my deathbed yelling, "Wait a minute! I got one more idea!" There's always the next one with me."

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