Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's "Harmony" is now on Broadway. (Photo/JTA-Julieta Cervantes)
Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's "Harmony" is now on Broadway. (Photo/JTA-Julieta Cervantes)

Broadway’s ‘Harmony’ includes origin story of singer who became S.F. cantor

Updated Dec. 27

I was in New York recently to see a jolly round of nine shows. A surprise favorite was the musical “Harmony” about the Comedian Harmonists, an internationally famous German singing group that was forced to disband because of antisemitism amid the rise of fascism before World War II.

The musical, which opened on Broadway in November, was a stark and timely reminder, not only of the peril of antisemitism but also of the constant threat to democracy across the globe.

The all-male sextet was made up of three Jews and three non-Jews. They were Harry Frommermann, Erich A. Collin, Roman Cycowski, Asparuh “Ari” Leschnikoff, Robert Biberti and Erwin Bootz.

Cycowski’s name may sound familiar. He was a longtime cantor at Temple Beth Israel in San Francisco, which is now part of Congregation Am Tikvah. Cycowski then served as cantor at Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs for several decades before his death in 1998.

The Comedian Harmonists performed from 1928 to 1934. Their repertoire ranged from folk to classical to popular songs, often performed amid comedic bits.

In their show, during a triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall in December 1933, the members debated whether to return to Germany amid rising overt antisemitism in their homeland.

The musical is brought to a halt when Albert Einstein, visiting them backstage, issues this warning: “Throughout the course of history, the failure of democracies has set the stage for the success of tyrants. Greed and hatred is a proven formula for success. In the short term, at least. An unfortunate legacy for our species.”

The audience, clearly recognizing the power and timeliness of these words, went wild with applause. The action on stage paused for a moment.

The driving force behind the musical has been songwriter Barry Manilow who developed it with his longtime lyricist, Bruce Sussman. Getting the production to Broadway was a multi-decade work of love for 80-year-old Manilow.

His inspiration for the show came after seeing a 1977 German documentary about the group.

The musical offered little in the way of joyful sing-along moments of “Copacabana” or “Mandy.” How could it? It is about prejudice, Kristallnacht, the Depression, Hitler’s rise and World War II.

The songs were strong. The story was powerful. The cast was talented. The show was good entertainment. But most of all, it was a powerful reminder of what antisemitism and indifference to injustice can do.

For the original Comedian Harmonists, the lessons of their time were clear. First, the Nazis harassed them and banned pieces they performed by Jewish composers. Then, the Nazis forbade them from touring abroad and finally prohibited the group from performing in public at home.

The three Jewish members of the ensemble fled the country. For a time, the three non-Jews were imprisoned and then were sent to the frontlines to fight. The Nazis imprisoned the wife of Bootz, one of the non-Jewish singers. She was a Jew and a Bolshevik.

All six men survived the war.

Various incarnations of the Comedian Harmonists followed, but none was as successful as the original group, and the six men never reunited after parting.

Two of the members came to the U.S. and settled in California: Cycowski and Collin. The latter worked for Northrop, the aircraft manufacturer, and ran a small plastics workshop on the side.

Cycowski, the last surviving member of the sextet, continued to sing until his death.

“Harmony” not only honors the memory of the Comedian Harmonists but also serves as a powerful reminder of injustice in our own unharmonious times.

Correction: An earlier version of this column said Erwin Bootz’s wife, Ursula, died in the Holocaust. In fact, she survived and moved to California.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is an award-winning journalist who loves to make women and men "of a certain age" laugh, think and feel. In addition to The Matzo Chronicles, Karen is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. She can be reached at [email protected].