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“Right,” Sussman said. “But it takes place in the approaching storm, and I feel that the writing of the play itself is an act of bearing witness, and that’s an important thing to me. We had a survivor come speak to the cast yesterday. She’s 85 and she said something, and I had to bow my head because I was welling up when she said it. She said: ‘I’m 85. How much longer do I have to tell this story?’ I feel that. There has to be another generation who continues to tell the story, who continues to remember. That’s why this musical is so important.”
“The idea spoke to me very quickly. As a musician and as a Jew,” Manilow said. “These guys, the Comedian Harmonists, were the architects of the kind of music that we love today. They were the Backstreet Boys, they were The Beatles, they were huge. Huge. They invented this style of six-part singing. They were young, they were attractive, they were funny. They were revered in Europe. After we saw the documentary, we said, ‘How come we’ve never heard of these guys?’”
“And in a way, that is the story — that we don’t know anything about them,” Sussman said.
Although Sussman and Manilow started talking about this musical in 1991, they didn’t start work in earnest until three years later. Sussman spent a year in Germany doing research before writing a first draft that he says was “longer than Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle.”
“It’s been a very rough road for us, but thrilling when it comes to creativity,” Manilow said “Maybe ‘liberating’ is a good word for it. Because I am kind of imprisoned when it comes to the kind of songs that I have to write for albums. There are certain brick walls that I hit. I’ve broken so many rules over the years as a songwriter. But even so, there’s no way I could write anything like what I’m required to write for ‘Harmony.’”
After the initial production, in La Jolla, Calif., Manilow actually got the opportunity to meet one of the original Comedian Harmonists when he was asked to give an award to Roman Cycowski, the last surviving member of the group. Cycowski inspired a character called “Rabbi” in Manilow and Sussman’s musical. He died in 1998 at the age of 97, and had worked as a cantor in Palm Springs and, as it turned out, lived only four blocks away from Manilow.
“I’d been walking the dogs in front of his house for 15 years, and I didn’t even know he was there. He was a vaudevillian, and he still acted like one. During our meeting, he said, ‘If they hadn’t destroyed us, we would’ve been bigger than The Beatles.’”
“I talked to [Cycowski] on the phone,” Sussman said. “He was a character, and he was funny and he was a ham — a kosher one, but a ham. We talked for a while, and I guess his rabbinical training came to the fore; he felt the need to bless me. He said: ‘You know I’m a very old man. I wish you as long and as healthy a life as I have. I hope that you when you reach my age you will still be collecting royalties.’”