SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
October 9, 1997
NIGHT & DAY
Manilow, Sussman take center stage with a fine-tuned musical
By Karla Peterson
It is 9:30 on a muggy San Diego morning. The hotel restaurant is nearly deserted and the coffee hasn't arrived yet, but Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman are wide awake and percolating.
The source of their nervous energy is the original musical Harmony, which makes its world premiere Oct. 19 at the La Jolla Playhouse. In keeping with the traditions of their 25-year partnership, Sussman wrote the lyrics and Manilow wrote the music. In response to the moment -- into the first week of technical rehearsals, one week away from the first preview -- they are airing their pre-premiere jitters in stereo.
MANILOW: "Who knows what we have? We're just too into it at this point. The process is so complicated that at this point in rehearsals, we don't even know what's going up on that stage. We don't know what we have here."
SUSSMAN: "The elements we're seeing all look great, but we can't step far enough back to see . . . "
MANILOW: ". . . 'Does this make any sense?' Every time we've had a reading of it, it's gone fantastically well. But you just never know what's going to happen . . . "
SUSSMAN: ". . . as soon as you turn on a light and have people look at it."
MANILOW: "Every single step of the way, it's been encouraging, it's been challenging, it's been tremendously moving and very exciting. From Bruce finding (the idea), to us beginning to write it, to the score turning out to be something we're so proud of. From finding our perfect director and the perfect cast, and the La Jolla Playhouse, which is such a brilliant and nurturing place to be. It's been a fantastic experience, but we still don't know what's going up on that stage."
Here are a few of the things we do know about Harmony.
It was inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a six-man vocal-harmony group formed in Berlin in the late 1920s. The Weimar equivalent of the Manhattan Transfer, the Harmonists performed with Marlene Deitrich and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, played to thrilled crowds in the United States and Europe, appeared in 12 films and sold millions of records.
With their stunning a cappella renditions of classical-music favorites and popular standards, the Comedian Harmonists were vocal-music sensations. Then the group's mix of Jewish and gentile members caught the eyes of the Nazi Party, and the Harmonists were forbidden from playing together. Theyr last concert was in Munich in 1935.
The Comedian Harmonists were together for eight years; turning their story into a musical has taken Sussman and Manilow six. And like parents sending their firstborn off to college, the collaborators are having a tough time letting go. They know their child is in good hands. Great hands, even. But they can't get used to the fact that those hands belong to people other than themselves.
"It's a whole experience of learning to trust, because we can't do it all," Manilow says. "Usually, when we write our songs for the albums, we can get so deep into that process, that other than engineering the record, we know exactly what we're doing.
"With this thing, we have to trust everybody else. And we're so used to running the show, this has become the most challenging thing we've ever done. Thank goodness we've got these fantastic people working with us, but it is a nail-biter."
HITS AND HOPES
They met 25 years ago, when Manilow was Bette Midler's musical director and pianist and Sussman was enrolled in the BMI Workshop musical-theater program.
While the duo shared a love of musicals (Manilow already had composed the original score for an off-Broadway production of The Drunkard), they had to settle for writing rent-paying jingles. Then they had to make do with creating hit singles, as the shy, lanky piano player surprised them both by becoming a major pop superstar.
"I remember when he was playing piano for Bette in some dump somewhere, and I went backstage to congratulate him afterwards, and he said to me, 'Some people just came back and offered me a record deal,' " the amiable Sussman says with a grin. "And I remember saying, 'Doing what?' And he said, 'Singing.' And I think I laughed."
Together, they chuckled all the way to the top, as Manilow went on to sell more than 58 million records worldwide, and such Manilow-Sussman compositions as Copacabana (At the Copa) -- co-written with Jack Feldman -- and I Made It Trhough the Rain became two of Manilow's 25 top-40 hits. A frothy stage version of Copacabana even had a nice run on London's West End.
In many ways, Manilow and Sussman had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. But they had yet to fulfill their fondest fantasy.
For that, they needed a big idea. A compelling concept. A story worth the sacrifice of heart, soul and pop-star duties. When Sussman first heard a CD by the Comedian Harmonists six years ago, he thought he'd stumbled onto something. And when he saw a German documentary on the group, he knew he'd walked right into "It."
"I went down to the New York Public Theatre on a rainy, cold March night and endured four hours of German documentary filmmaking with subtitles," says Sussman. "And despite that, and despite a daunting array of characters being introduced, and an incredibly complicated plot, I just sat there with my jaw dropped open. And I remember going to a pay phone and calling Barry (at his home) in California and saying, 'I think I found it.' "
In the story of the six extraordinary German singers, the New Yorker (Sussman) and the Angeleno (Manilow) found everything they needed to make a world-premiere musical. They found drama. They found humor. They found pathos. They found an excuse to write a Marlene Dietrich parody. They found what they were looking for, and more than they could have imagined.
SUSSMAN: "The first thing that took hold of me was when I realized that six diverse young men set out to find harmony in what turned out to be the most discordant chapter in human history. That irony, and their quest, I found to be deeply moving and highly theatrical at the same time."
MANILOW: "The Comedian Harmonists themselves were an enormous source of inspiration for each song we wrote. The music is all original, but we wanted to write the songs as if they could have sung them."
In six years, Sussman and Manilow's heartfelt effort has grown into a theatrical event employing the talents of many people who are not Sussman and Manilow. And while they may have mixed feelings about this process, the duo will not equivocate about the men and women behind it.
MANILOW on director David Warren: "David was the director we were waiting for. When David described the vision he saw, it was like listening to the conversations (Sussman and I had) been having with each other for five years."
MANILOW on the cast: "Everybody involved is so nuts about the piece, and we're so lucky that we found these people who are blowing us away. I mean, this cast! I sit there in rehearsals, and I just feel privileged to be in the same room with these people."
SUSSMAN on the dancers: "We have so many cast members who left high-paying Broadway jobs to come out here and be a part of this. This is not a big dance show, and we have dancers who left Broadway shows to do this. And they're brilliant."
So here they are. Two big-time pop professionals with a dream about to become a complicated reality and butterflies in their stomachs the size of bald eagles. What they also have is another idea of what harmonizing is really about. And what it takes to let other voices into the mix.
You know, you sit in y our room, alone, for six years working on this piece, and suddenly, you take your script," says Sussman, shyly offering up his menu to demonstrate, "and you say, 'Here '. . . "
". . . Please be careful with this,' " Manilow continues.
"It's terrifying," Sussman says. "You want to ask, 'Can we have a receipt or something?' "