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“I remember talking to you about ‘Company’ the first night we met, and you said, ‘I saw it 17 times,’ and I said, ‘I saw it 21 times,’” Sussman said.
“I second-acted it,” Manilow said. “I’d go in for free after intermission.”
“So did I. We were both poor. We stood outside. You can’t do that anymore. They ask for Playbills and ticket stubs now,” Sussman said. “I remember I wrote Sondheim the only fan letter I ever wrote in my life, when I was a senior in college, and he wrote back and invited me to the opening night of ‘Follies’ at the Winter Garden. I sat in the eighth row between Ethel Merman and Danny Kaye, and I thought, if I die right here and now, it will have been a full and rewarding life.”
Manilow and Sussman were sitting on barstools along with Speciale in the Snapple Theater Center’s upstairs lobby, outside the 200-seat house where the long-running murder mystery “Perfect Crime” is performed.
The two men have an easy repartee honed through 41 years of friendship and business dealings. Dressed in a black button-down shirt and matching jeans, Sussman was bearish in an amiable sort of way, an enthusiastic raconteur of Manilow’s tales and his own. Manilow, in belted black slacks, black shirt, gray sport coat and blindingly shiny black shoes, was more measured and reserved in his speech; he seems more than willing to let Sussman play Boswell to his Johnson. Sucking contemplatively on an electronic cigarette, Manilow presents a beatific, off-stage presence, suggestive less of a pop superstar than of the caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
“Onstage, I’m the pop singer. It’s a gig; it’s a job,” Manilow said.
“Harmony” is not Manilow and Sussman’s first experience writing the sort of character-based material that “Harmony” requires. The men worked together on the scores for the animated films “The Pebble and the Penguin” and “Thumbelina,” and for the TV and stage versions of “Copacabana,” based on the monster hit song written by Manilow, Sussman and Jack Feldman. The song is sort of a three-verse musical in itself. And, over the past 40 years, Manilow and Sussman have discussed countless ideas for musicals, including one about the cartoon character Betty Boop and adaptations of everything from Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” to the movie “Tootsie.” But a musical about the Comedian Harmonists, who were the subject of a documentary that Sussman had watched, was the idea that took hold of both of them.
“It’s about a quest for harmony in the most discordant chapter in human history,” Sussman said, though Manilow was quick to add, “It’s not a Holocaust musical.”