Tavis: Barry Manilow and writer and lyricist Bruce Sussman have collaborated on a new musical. It’s called “Harmony,” which has just had its premiere at the Ahmanson Theater.
The musical is based on the true story of a group of six young men in Germany prior to World War II who became world-famous entertainers, starring in movies, selling millions of records.
But then they had their dreams, and in some cases their lives, destroyed by the Nazis. Let’s take a look at a scene from the musical “Harmony.”
[Clip of performance of “Harmony”]
Tavis: First of all, I’m honored to have you both on the program.
Bruce Sussman: Oh, please, our pleasure.
Tavis: Barry’s been here before, but my first time seeing you, Mr. Sussman, so –
Tavis: I’ve been dancing to your stuff for years.
Sussman: Thank you.
Barry Manilow: I’ve been saying to Bruce, one of my favorite of all time interviews that I’ve ever had, you.
Tavis: Well –
Manilow: Really, it’s just such a pleasure to be with you again.
Tavis: We had a great time the first time you came on.
Tavis: You saw yourself on the wall?
Manilow: I did.
Tavis: Good, so you’re on (unintelligible).
Manilow: I did.
Sussman: Right next to the president.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Sussman: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, Barry Manilow’s on the wall in the hallway of our favorite guests. But I’ve loved your lyrical genius for (unintelligible).
Manilow: Yes, he’s a lyrical genius, he is.
Tavis: So thank you for your gift.
Sussman: Thank you.
Tavis: And for your work. Speaking of your gift and your work, how did this come to be? Who saw this first or who came across this first and figured out we have to do this?
Manilow: Well we’d been looking for one for years, Bruce and I. you know how long Bruce and I have been together? Forty –
Sussman: Forty-two years.
Manilow: Forty-two years writing and –
Tavis: That’s a lot of hits.
Sussman: He played accordion at my bar mitzvah.
Manilow: No. (Laughter) No, but as I’ve told you before, my goal was never to be a performer or a singer; it was to be a writer, actually a writer of musicals. That’s where I was heading, accompanying other singers and all.
Suddenly I wound up with this fantastic career as a performer and a singer.
Tavis: So you kind of started in musical theater.
Manilow: I started there.
Tavis: You started there, yeah.
Manilow: Yeah, Bruce and I met at the BMI workshop, learning how to write musicals. That was where we wanted to go. Then I took a left turn, Bruce always says that annoying song, “Mandy,” that (laughter) took me away.
Tavis: Huge, huge, huge hit.
Manilow: Right, huge, but it took me away from – because it takes like five years or so to pull one of these shows together.
Sussman: (Unintelligible) yeah.
Manilow: I just never had the five years. But eventually we did a lot of work, a lot of great work. Animated movies and TV shows and loads of album cuts, but eventually we found those five years that it would take, and we wrote the one that we wanted to write. But we kept looking for one.
Tavis: How did you know “Harmony” was the one to write, though?
Sussman: Well we had been offered many projects. Many people had come to us to write musicals. But I had gotten very good advice from someone that you’d better love it at the beginning, because it’s such a long, hard road that the piece has to be there for you to sustain you, to get through all of that.
Manilow: You’d better love it.
Sussman: We never found that property. Then in 1991, to answer your question, I was having my morning coffee over “The New York Times,” and there was a review of a documentary playing down at the Public theater downtown, the Shakespeare festival downtown. They have a little screening room down there for art films.
The headline of the review had several words in it that made me go, “What?” It read, “Eberhard Fechner’s epic documentary, ‘Comedian Harmonists,’ at the Public.” Eberhard Fechner? Who’s that? Epic? Really? Comedian Harmonists? Who were they?
This very compelling photo of six young men in white tie and tails, hair brilliantined, 1920s, 1930s. I read this review and I said, “Hm, I think I have to go down and see this.”
I went down on a cold, rainy night and endured four hours of German documentary making with subtitles. Not my usual thing to do. I was overwhelmed. I came to a – I live in New York, he lives out here. I went to a pay phone on Lafayette Street and I called him and I said, “I think I found it.”
Tavis: Are there still pay phones on Lafayette Street?
Sussman: You know, I don’t know.
Tavis: They can’t – that’s how long ago this was.
Sussman: Right. And he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I can hear it in your voice. Go get it.” I went to Berlin and did the –
Tavis: What was it – before I go on to Barry, what was it, Bruce, that hit you so hard when you saw it?
Sussman: Two things. Two things. I went in there saying, “How do I not know this story,” and I came out realizing that the reason why I didn’t know the story is the story. That was compelling.
The other thing was we always look for that, what we call a spine line. What is this piece about from which all else comes? It came very quickly when I saw the documentary.
This was a piece about the quest for harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history. That seemed to me very fertile ground to explore.
Tavis: Barry, as an artist, and maybe this is a good place for us to get into more of the story. Let me do this first, I want to ask you a question specifically as an artist and how this hit you. But Bruce, tell me more of the story first, for those who don’t know the story. Just top-line what the story is.
Sussman: Well as Barry calls them, they were the first boy band.
Sussman: Between the wars, excuse me, in Germany, as you know, a very, very difficult time. Political turmoil, economic collapse. These six impoverished young men got together and created a brand of entertainment that had never been seen before and has not been seen since.
They took the intricate harmonies of a modern-day group like Manhattan Transfer or the High-Lows, and merged that with the physical humor of the Marx Brothers. It was an amazingly fresh and original thing to do. They were brilliant.
They sang in the streets and in alleyways, and they got discovered, and they rose to phenomenal stardom. Millions of records, as they said, made over a dozen films, performed with Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker.
They’d become rich, famous, acclaimed, and 1933, the turmoil in terms of the chaos ends because a government actually succeeds, but unfortunately, it’s the National Socialists and the Nazi party.
Several of our members are Jewish, several of them are not. What I just described to you is our first act. What happens to them is our second act.
Tavis: So without telling the whole story, when you got to dig into this, Barry, as an artist, and artist extraordinaire, no less, but as an artist, what struck you about their journey?
Manilow: Well what struck me is that I didn’t know who these men were. I know a lot about pop music, and to think that they were the Beatles of Germany and maybe even around the world, and I’d never heard of these people.
Then when I listened to what they did, it was so complicated, interesting, funny. How come I didn’t know about these men? So then I went to work. Then when I went to Germany that next time, there was Tower Records there.
On the wall of Tower Records, there was a full wall of Comedian Harmonists. I said, “My God, these are really famous men.” So before I put a note on paper, I did my homework for a full year.
In Germany I bought what they call their hit parade, they call it the (speaks in German) parade. I bought the (speaks in German) parade of 1920, the (speaks in German) parade of 1921, ’22, ’23 –
Sussman: A suitcase full of them.
Manilow: I brought a suitcase back, to say nothing of classical music, because it deserved classical – I was soaking in German music. As a matter of fact, here’s a creepy thing. I found the Nazi marching band theme, and as creepy as it was, it was brilliant. They were brilliant. They were monsters, and yet they were brilliant.
Anyway, I was soaking in the musical of the 1930s in Germany, and so was Bruce. Before we put anything on paper, we had to do our homework.
Tavis: You both have made the point, and I take this from you and others who I’ve talked to who’ve done this kind of work, that it takes a long time to pull this together.
Tavis: What makes it so tedious?
Sussman: I think a musical particularly is an especially thorny thing to crack. It takes – Barry calls it circling the airport. We did it for four or five years.
Manilow: We circled.
Sussman: It’s such a massive story. What part of the story are we telling? Why? There were many more –
Manilow: And this is an original book that Bruce wrote. A lot of musicals are based on something –
Tavis: On something, yeah.
Manilow: – whether it’s a book or a movie. This was a true story with dozens of characters. How do you whittle it all down to a two-act play? We started, and usually you start with a book, anything. We started the hard way of doing it, of course; we always pick the hard way.
Sussman: So it took, that took a while, and then it’s a matter of you have a first draft, and the first draft I sent to Barry had everything there, but there was no score, obviously.
When I got to a song in a paragraph, I described what I thought that song might be and what it would do, and how it would serve the character and move the story along.
I sent it to him, and he sent me back 16 melodies. (Laughter) The process started, and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth.
Tavis: That was my next question, so I’m glad you went there, because I’m trying to get a sense, without giving too much away, how much of the score is Mr. Manilow, and how much of the score is their stuff, their music.
Sussman: None, it’s all original.
Tavis: It’s all original stuff?
Manilow: It’s all our stuff.
Sussman: We replicate.
Sussman: We write in the – when they are –
Tavis: I see why it took a while.
Sussman: Right. When in our show we have them performing, we replicate the kind of material that the Comedian Harmonists did. But then when they’re in a scene and someone’s singing to someone else, we’re writing what we call book song. So it’s all original.
Manilow: It’s all original
Sussman: Everything’s original. We had actually a high compliment paid us in the form of a criticism once. One producer said that when he was looking at the piece and thinking about getting involved, he said, “I really like it, I really like it, but I think you ought to use more of those old songs that you found, to -” “Well, we wrote all of those old songs.” (Laughter)
Tavis: But how does the audience, as brilliant as Barry Manilow is, how does the audience come to understand what their sound was like and what they did if it’s all original and none of their stuff?
Manilow: Good question, good question. We’ve tried as much as we could to make sure the audience knew how brilliant they were. For instance, there’s this one song, there was a section of their act where the lights were down and you heard what you thought was an orchestra doing the William Tell – was it?
Sussman: No, the –
Manilow: No, the –
Sussman: – overture of “The Barber of Seville.”
Manilow: – overture of “The Barber of Seville.” (humming) Trombones and all. You actually thought there was a small band in the pit. Then they would come up and it was them replicating the sounds of instruments.
Sussman: Six of them, replicating the sounds of instruments.
Manilow: Well, so we wrote –
Tavis: With their own voices.
Sussman: With their own voices.
Tavis: With their own instruments. Got it, yeah, yeah.
Manilow: We wrote one like that, and that’s the kind of thing we did. When we put them on stage in our show, we were trying to tell you how brilliant they were.
Sussman: This is the type of song they did, or this is the type of piece they did.
Tavis: As artists, just purely as artists, Barry, what do you make of their gift, their sound? Were they that good?
Manilow: Yeah, they were that good. Any musician I play their work for, their jaw drops to the ground. So complicated. Six-part harmony –
Sussman: No autotune.
Manilow: No autotune.
Sussman: No multiple takes. They dropped the needle on wax, and that was it – go.
Manilow: I always say to Bruce, they’re standing around a microphone –
Sussman: A single microphone.
Manilow: – and they’re singing “The Barber of Seville,” complicated, complicated work, so in tune. You know they finished it, and that’s take one. Then if they want to do it again, it’s take two. It’s six minutes of complicated singing. So for me as a musician, yeah, they knock me out.
Tavis: Since Bruce raises this, I’m curious as to your take on it. I have my own point of view, but you’re the artist here. What do you make of modern-day autotune? What do you make of this?
Manilow: Well, sometimes it’s necessary. It’s necessary for everybody, we’re all used to everybody singing in tune, and it helps. I don’t – thank goodness, I don’t need it very often, but there are great singers, really great singers, who go out of tune a little bit, and that’s –
Sussman: Not in our cast. We have six guys who sing in –
Manilow: Yeah, boy.
Sussman: – such accurate tune –
Manilow: And we couldn’t use autotune, even if they (unintelligible).
Manilow: You don’t use that on a stage in a Broadway musical. You can’t. That’s for records. Autotune and that kind of stuff is for records. You can’t do that live.
Tavis: So Bruce, you’re going where I want to go now, which is how, then, once you have – and I’m jumping ahead of, again, a long process of getting this right. When you finally get to the place where you’re ready to cast, how do you go about trying to find these guys?
Manilow: It’s complicated, man.
Sussman: This is a very tough show to cast. I’ve been –
Manilow: Yeah, you’ve got to, they have to be able to sing, dance, be funny, be serious, and six six-part harmony.
Sussman: The last part is tricky, because it’s not three-part harmony or four-part harmony, it’s six-part harmony, and some of those notes are real weird.
Manilow: And they’re dancing at the same time.
Sussman: And they’re dancing and being funny and acting at the same time. It’s a rough show to cast. I’ve cast nine productions. This one is by far the most difficult show to cast. I think we have a spectacular cast.
Manilow: And you get – yeah, we have a spectacular cast. But you get to one person and he’s got everything but the high note.
Sussman: Then there’s the issue of look and ethnicity. We have Jewish members, we have non-Jewish members. There’s so many pieces of the puzzle that have to be just right. Sometimes you get five of the six and you’re looking for that one piece, and that one piece is being elusive.
Manilow: But our cast, a great cast. Really a great cast. They love it. I think gee, this is so complicated; they must hate it because they’ve got to work so hard. They don’t.
Sussman: They’re feasting on it.
Manilow: They love this.
Tavis: Barry, you’ve worked with some of the greats, and a couple of these greats helped launch you into the stratosphere years ago, and all your fans know that story full well.
When you see these guys – I’m not looking for names, per se, but do you sense that there are some guys in your cast who this will be a launching pad for them?
Manilow: Oh, yes.
Tavis: Are they that good?
Manilow: Oh, yes. Yes. This show is a great showcase for actors, singers, dancers. This is a real great showcase. When we did our show back in La Jolla, Patrick Wilson was –
Sussman: Was in the original cast. We discovered him.
Manilow: Yeah, and there were a few more names that came out of the early versions of “Harmony.” I think that could happen here.
Sussman: It’s a cast of 20, and there are six principle men who play the Comedian Harmonists, two women who are the two principle women in their lives, and then a cast of 12 ensemble players who play 40 characters. So it’s a big story.
Tavis: I’m glad you mentioned the two women, two women in their lives, at least two, because I’m curious – and I’m anxious to see this myself – I’m curious as to how much of, and whether or not the story lends itself to the telling of the stories of their own lives.
How do we connect to their individual humanity as opposed to them being a part of –
Sussman: Well it’s –
Manilow: Well that was another crazy thing that he had to do, because there were so many characters in the real story. What he had to do was to whittle it down, down, down so it could be a two-act –
Tavis: But I don’t want you to whittle it down so much that I don’t get a chance to know who they are.
Sussman: Oh, no. This is not a – it’s set in the world of the entertainment business, obviously, but it’s dealing with much larger themes. When we say “the quest for harmony,” we mean the quest for harmony in the broadest sense of the word.
The first thing they found was the easiest form of harmony to find, which was musical harmony. After that it was about how do these six human beings create a unit in this very tumultuous world that they inherited?
How does a Jewish member of the group who marries a non-Jewish woman, and a non-Jewish member of the group who marries a Jewish woman, how do they –
Tavis: That’s what I’m getting at, yeah.
Sussman: – how do they find their harmony together? Some of them do, some of them don’t, and that’s what the piece is really about.
Tavis: Right, right. Yet I get the sense that while they are, their talent and their work is disrupted – disrupted’s not a strong enough word – by what happens in Nazi Germany, I get the sense it’s not about that, though. It’s not about the Holocaust, it’s not about –
Sussman: It’s – oh, no, no.
Manilow: No, no, we’d never go there.
Sussman: It’s the approaching storm.
Sussman: Our piece ends in 1935, which is a year before the Jesse Owens Olympics, the year before the world came to Berlin to celebrate the Olympics, and three years before Kristallnacht, which is largely considered the first event of the Holocaust. But had it been a bona-fide Holocaust story, these two Jews wouldn’t have written it.
Sussman: But it ends in the approaching storm. Obviously that approaching storm is territory we know well, and we know what’s looming.
Manilow: So does the audience, and that was one of the difficult things, knowing that they were already ahead of us. How do you keep them at the edge of their seat?
Tavis: But it’s also not the kind of thing you can ignore. To your point, it is the approaching storm. You can’t act like it ain’t coming.
Sussman: Oh, no, and our show certainly deals with that, I think as anybody who’s seen it will tell you.
Tavis: I’m curious, though, and I suspect the audience is right now, what happens to these guys in the end? We know they stop performing as a group. Do any of them get caught up in the Holocaust? Do they all survive the Holocaust?
Manilow: That maybe give a little too much away.
Tavis: May give too much too away?
Manilow: But I can tell you that I met him, I met the lead of one of them –
Tavis: You met one of these guys?
Sussman: The story is told through the memory of one of the six.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Sussman: The eldest, the one who lived the longest, who happened to have been a rabbi before he joined the group. It’s an interesting group of people.
Tavis: Wow, hold up, hold up, hold up.
Tavis: (Laughter) One of my best friends is probably watching – he’s a rabbi here in L.A. – hey, Steve – rabbi leader, and I’m just trying to imagine my friend the rabbi leaving to go join a singing group.
Manilow: Right, right.
Sussman: It was a Polish rabbi, a Bulgarian singing waiter, an Italian opera singer, a German doctor, a self-taught musical genius, and a brothel pianist.
Tavis: These are the six?
Sussman: Those are the six, yeah.
Tavis: Oh, Lord. (Laughter)
Manilow: The story is just unbelievable, that we didn’t know anything about.
Tavis: So beyond the music, is there something else with that disparate a group that becomes the commonality for them?
Sussman: It’s about those six diverse human beings who had nothing else in common with each other –
Tavis: But the music.
Sussman: Right, becoming one.
Manilow: And it happens to our cast too. It’s been happening to our cast. The six guys that didn’t know each other, that were all coming from different cities and all, they are now a group.
They are friends, they are beginning to become in love with each other, just like they did. That’s what’s so beautiful to watch. But I did meet Rabbi. We call him Rabbi.
Sussman: His nickname is Rabbi because he was a rabbi, so they called him Rabbi just as a nickname.
Manilow: Right, he really was a canter. When we did the play in La Jolla years ago, I got a call from the A Cappella association of America asking me if I would give him an award because they knew we were doing this, and they knew that they were an a cappella singing group.
So I said sure, and we thought well, maybe he’d, when he fled, he would have gone to Israel or to New York or I don’t know where –
Manilow: I live in Palm Springs, as I’ve told you. Well, he fled to Palm Springs, and I was writing this beautiful stuff for his character to sing, and he lived four blocks away from my house.
Sussman: Tavis, you can practically see his house from Barry’s.
Tavis: You didn’t know this?
Tavis: All this time?
Tavis: Oh, wow. (Laughs)
Manilow: There I was, sitting at my piano, imagining his young self doing this song to his wife, his young wife, and so they called and I said, “Really? Well, where does he live?” He’s four blocks away. So on the day of, I walked down to – I’d been walking the dogs in front of his house.
There was a whole bunch of cameramen there, because they were going to take pictures of me giving him the award. The door opened and there he was. He was in a wheelchair, he was 94, and sitting next to him was his wife, Mary, who we had written a beautiful song for, I could cry so hard.
They were there, these people, these people that we had invented in our minds, were sitting there in front of me.
Tavis: So the obvious question is – we’ll see how good, how prescient, Barry Manilow is. When you met them, did what you had written match with what you were seeing?
Sussman: Yeah, yeah.
Manilow: Oh, even more so. He turned into George Burns.
Sussman: He was a ham.
Manilow: He was a ham.
Sussman: A kosher ham.
Manilow: He turned into a –
Tavis: A kosher ham. (Laughter)
Manilow: He turned into a vaudevillian, and she was so in love with him. They were exactly what I was hoping they would be.
Sussman: It was extraordinary.
Tavis: That’s got to be kind of – it’s a good eerie. That’s – it’s surreal is the word I want. That’s surreal, to have written something –
Manilow: In Yiddish it’s called (speaks Yiddish).
Sussman: (Speaks Yiddish)
Manilow: It means it’s kismet.
Sussman: Meant to be.
Manilow: It’s fated.
Sussman: I spoke to him on the phone after this – and by the way, he sang every service at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs –
Manilow: In Palm Springs, and I didn’t know that either.
Sussman: – until a few weeks before he died, and he was, at the end of his tenure, the oldest active canter in the United States of America. Now that’s saying something.
But I spoke to him on the phone, and as the conversation was winding down, I guess the cantorial rabbinical training in him came forth, and he blessed me. He said, “I’m a very old man,” and he said, “I hope you live as long and healthy a life as I do.”
I did, and I said, “Oh, thank you, Cantor.” He went, “Wait a minute, I’m not done.” I said, “Okay.” And he said, “And when you reach my age, I hope that you, like me, will still be collecting royalties.” (Laughter)
Tavis: He ain’t got to worry about that. We can’t even sing “Copacabana” around here without Bruce wanting us to pass the cup to pay him for singing “Copacabana” on the set. (Laughter)
Manilow: That’s where he learned it from.
Tavis: I got 30 seconds apiece. I’ll start with you, Bruce; I’ll close with, as always, Mr. Manilow. What do you hope the takeaway will be from those who will see “Harmony?”
Sussman: That people remember that this happened, and that people know that these remarkable, these six remarkable men were there and had this experience, and they deserve to be remembered.
Manilow: And to introduce these people, who were the architects of the kind of musical that we all love – the Beatles and all the rest of them. To introduce these men, and of course to tell the story of what happened.
Tavis: It’s called “Harmony,” it’s at the Ahmanson, already premiered. I’m rushing down to see it myself; maybe I’ll see you there. If you can get a ticket, get in, because based on this conversation, it’s something that you’ll want to see. I think I can – I think I know these rules – the rules are that I can sing six bars without having to pay them, so I’m going to do it.
I think it’s six. Eight? Six?
Sussman: I think it’s eight.
Tavis: (Singing) Her name was Lola, (laughter) she was a showgirl –
Tavis: That’s it. (Laughter) Love having you both on. It’s “Harmony” at the Ahmanson. Bruce Sussman, good to have you here.
Sussman: Thank you.
Tavis: Barry, always good to see you.
Manilow: Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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