“Somewhere in the world
There is a little piece of salvation
And I have been dreaming of it for a long time.”
— The Comedian Harmonists, “Irgendwo ou der Welt”
On December 16, 1933, the popular German vocal sextet the Comedian Harmonists played Carnegie Hall.
Now, some 90 years later and a few blocks downtown, the Comedian Harmonists are back. Harmony, a musical based on their story, opened on Broadway Monday night — a quarter century after Barry Manilow and his partner Greg Sussman decided to tell the Comedian Harmonists’s story with a new set of songs.
Response to the Carnegie Hall concert, by all contemporary accounts, was jubilant. Response to Harmony, a little less so. Critics collectively were lukewarm, which presumably is not good news, since Harmony is not the kind of feel-good, tourist-friendly, critic-proof show on which Broadway has been relying in recent years.
The Lion King, Wicked, Aladdin, MJ and Chicago don’t need critical praise to sell tickets. Harmony might, since it tempers showy musical numbers with the dark story of how Germany’s National Socialists of the 1930s erased art they didn’t like in service of Adolf Hitler’s vision for restoring the glory of the Fatherland.
The career of a singing group, it should be stressed, was among the least of the things the Nazis would destroy. But the story of the Comedian Harmonists remains fascinating and instructive, because it reflects how 1930s Germans, like others throughout human history, failed to understand or accept the early signs that their country was plunging into an abyss.
The Comedian Harmonists formed in 1927 when actor/singer/comic Harry Frommermann decided to form a vocal ensemble patterned after the popular American group the Revellers. From an ad in the newspaper he recruited Robert Biberti, Asparuh “Ari” Leschnikoff, Erich Collin, Roman Cycowski and Erwin Bootz, whose piano provided most of the group’s minimal instrumental accompaniment. When they needed more, they imitated instruments with their voices.
Frommermann, Collin and Cycowski were Jewish, which was not an issue in 1927, but became problematic after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. By the following year the Nazis had banned “Jewish music,” which was labeled “degenerate” and dismissed as “everything German music is not.”
This sliced away part of the Harmonists’s repertoire, and soon it sliced apart the Harmonists themselves, since Jews were no longer permitted to perform publicly in Germany.
The Harmonists toured America in 1934, perhaps most famously giving a concert in June aboard the USS Saratoga in New York Harbor. When the tour ended, the group members debated whether to return to Germany. They decided that repressive as the country had become, it was their home base, and besides, this Nazi extremism couldn’t last forever. Right?
Not surprisingly, the group soon split up, with the Jewish members forming a new sextet that played outside Germany. The others formed their own new ensemble, often performing against the backdrop of a Nazi-ordered swastika, until the Nazis banned public performance of all music that didn’t advance the Thousand-Year Reich. Neither new group achieved the popularity of the original Comedian Harmonists.
In a stroke of benign fortune, all the Harmonists survived the war. Roman Cycowski, whose character narrates Harmony, eventually moved to Los Angeles and in his late 90s became America’s oldest practicing cantor. He died in 1998, outliving Adolf Hitler by 53 years.
The Harmonists’s story, like thousands of others, needs to be remembered. If Harmony doesn’t become a Broadway hit, for whatever reason and whatever its own artistic merits, it remains admirable that Manilow and Sussman wrote and pushed it.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget something else: the music made by the original group.
To modern ears the recordings may sound stiff, reflecting the style of an era before Bing Crosby showed singers how to make the microphone an intimate friend rather than a foreign device to be shouted into.
That said, the Harmonists’s records feature some amazing singing and harmony. Ari Leschnikoff was an opera singer and the others kept up, infusing their arrangements with pop, jazz and, as their name suggests, plain old fun.
Because some of the lyrical nuances will be lost on those who don’t speak German, it’s gratifying that the Harmonists also cut songs in English: a lovely dramatic take on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” a playful “Tea For Two” and the unfortunately un-prophetic “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
With the German songs, just the interplay of the vocals makes them a fascinating listen. Fans of later American ensembles from the Mills Brothers to the Swingle Singers, Manhattan Transfer or Lambert, Hendricks and Ross will marvel at the swooping, soaring and sheer vocal force of the singers.
Their repertoire ranged from Brahms to Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” and while their stage show was upbeat, they didn’t shy away from melancholy numbers like “The Last Roundup”: “A last drink with old friends / Look each other deep in the eyes / And shake a friend’s hand for the last time.”
The songs in Harmony were written for a Broadway stage. The Comedian Harmonists’s own songs made them stars on two continents. Without those songs, the Harmonists would not have inspired two theatrical plays, a movie, books, countless articles and at least half a dozen compilation CDs.
And at a time when we’re seeing a troubling escalation of anti-Semitism, the Comedian Harmonists’s story reminds us — sadly, reminds us again — how poison is that fruit.