“Harmony” runs Sept. 6 through Oct. 6 on the Alliance Theatre’s mainstage.
Barry Manilow and longtime songwriting partner Bruce Sussman have dreamed of writing Broadway-style musicals together since they first met. More than 40 years later, the Alliance Theatre production of Harmony means that dream is at last coming true.
As Sussman recalls, he was in grad school and working part time as a waiter while Manilow (who had written the score for off-Broadway’s The Drunkard) was gigging as an audition musician. The first song they wrote together — the American Bandstand theme — led to what’s described as a “surprising left turn” into pop music. But theatre was always their first love.
“What we loved about theatre,” Sussman says, “was the opportunity to write for characters and situations, and to have the musical numbers move the narrative along. These are the things that excite us.”
“If it’s good, theatre is the most thrilling thing I’ve ever been involved with,” adds Manilow. “Everyone will tell you, THAT is what keeps us coming back. When the curtain goes up and that first song works, there’s just nothing like it.”
THE DUO’S REMARKABLE SUCCESS — Manilow had five albums on the Billboard charts simultaneously in the late 1970s and charted 25 Top 40 singles between 1974 and 1983 — delayed their dream.
Then, in the late 1990s, Sussman read a New York Times review of The Comedian Harmonists, a four-hour documentary about a six-man vocal group that found fame and fortune in Germany until the Nazis banned them in 1934. He went to a screening of the film, was “blown away” and immediately called Manilow to say he had found the story for their musical.
“The thing about this group is that they were so huge,” Manilow says. “They were the Beatles of their generation — the first boy band. How did we not know about this group? They were as funny as the Marx Brothers, as complicated musically as Manhattan Transfer, and we had never heard of them before. That’s the story!”
The project challenged them. Sussman did research in Germany; the two spent a year studying late-1920s and early-1930s music. They worked on the project off and on for nearly 15 years. When it came time to mount a stage production, they decided to focus on perfecting the show rather than raising millions of dollars to put it on Broadway.
“We wanted to go to a regional theatre because they’re about the work,” Sussman says, “and commercial considerations are on the back burner. We made a list of theatres we knew about, whose work we thought was terrific.”
“We looked up the Alliance Theatre on the Internet!” Manilow interjects.
“We called the main number and asked to speak with Susan Booth, whom we didn’t know,” Sussman continues. “Lord knows what they thought. We said, ‘Hi, it’s Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman.’ They connected us to Susan and she picked up the phone and said — and I quote — ‘Please tell me you’re calling about Harmony!’ By the time the call was done, we had a commitment.”
“We’ve had such a rough road on this work,” Manilow confesses. “Susan read it and listened to the score, and she flipped out over it. It was such a beautiful phone call because she was so enthusiastic and said all the right things. For Bruce and I, it was so important to hear someone go off like that on a work that is so important to us. There was no doubt that this was the place we wanted to be.”