Aug 24, 2021

'Harmony': Pop Musik, 1935 Edition


In 2014, L.A.'s Center Theatre Group hosted a run of the Barry Manilow/Bruce Sussman musical 
Harmony, a historical musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a real-life musical group from 1930s Germany who managed to entertain millions despite the encroaching Nazi shadow. With the recent announcement of the musical's New York debut, it seemed as good as any to reprint my feature on the musical, which CTG commissioned from me for the program.

Comedian Harmonists: Low Comedy in High Art

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

German popular music of the 1920s and '30s wasn't all marches and schottisches (a slow polka). There was also a good deal of American-influenced music on the airwaves and in the dancehalls—so much so, in fact, that the world's first courses in jazz theory and performance were taught not in New Orleans or Harlem but in Frankfurt, Germany. It was there, in 1928, at the venerable Hoch Conservatory that a young Hungarian composer, Matyas Seiber. began teaching a “Jazz-Klasse." American pop hadn't just come via records and sheet music either, but in the flesh: Josephine Baker had played Berlin in 1925, and Paul Whiteman made a splash there a year later. In turn, Germany spawned its own bandleaders, including Eric Borchard and Stefan Weintraub, leader of The Syncopators. Dance-band sounds and harmonies soon found their way into the music of modernist composers like Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, and by the end of the decade, records by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were German radio staples. American-style pop and jazz, not to mention modernist music, had social implications as well as entertainment value: They may not even have known it at the time. but its practitioners and advocates were on the front lines of a culture war that would have real casualties within a decade. On one side were those, like the Hoch Conservatory's director, Bernhard Sekles, who defended his school's popular music courses by saying, "An infusion of 'Negro' blood can do no harm." On the other were critics, either openly allied with or at least sympathetic to the Nazi party's racist theories, who saw jazz and pop as part of a "plague" of “Negro noise.” Of course, popular music was also suspect to these reactionary critics because so many of Germany's bandleaders, popular singers and nightclub owners happened to be Jewish. In the ensuing Nazi campaign against "decadent" art and artists, pop music was a particularly expedient scapegoat, since by silencing it—as the Nazis officially did in 1935, after a two-year campaign of pressure and propaganda—they could also effectively silence some of Germany's most popular Jewish public figures. Among these were members of the vocal sextet the Comedian Harmonists. The band was formed in 1927 by Harry Frommerman, an unemployed actor who'd heard some records by the American vocal quintet The Revelers and figured he could put together a German group along the same lines. Frommerman placed an ad in the Berlin Lokal-Anzeiger and was soon joined by a former rabbi from Poland, Roman Cykowski; a Bulgarian singing waiter, Ari Leshnikoff; an operatic bass, Robert Biberti; a young medical student, Erich Collin; and a skilled pianist, Erwin Bootz. But this eclectic group did more than sing close-harmony versions of American jazz standards, German folk songs and novelty numbers. What put them over the top, says Bruce Sussman, is that the Harmonists also included deft musical and physical comedy in their act—hence the qualifier "Comedian." Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics for Harmony, a new musical about the Harmonists, with Barry Manilow writing the music, turned himself into an expert on the band after seeing Eberhard Fechner's 1977 documentary. "The piece de resistance of their act was the overture to The Barber of Seville," says Sussman, who like Manilow traveled to Germany to do research. "The lights were turned out, and you'd hear The Barber of Seville, and it sounded like a chamber orchestra playing. The lights would slowly come up, and it was six guys replicating all those instruments." If that sounds a bit like the kind of concert-hall antics later practiced by the likes of Victor Borge and PDQ Bach, that's not far off, Sussman says. "These were guys who found low comedy in high art. Their virtuosity was extraordinary; it was also hilarious."  For his part, Manilow makes a headier comparison. "They were the Beatles of Germany," says Manilow. "Every time I play Germany, I get into a limo and I say to the driver, 'Do you know Comedian Harmonists?' It doesn't matter whether the guy is young or old, they all know them. These men are still the Beatles of Germany." While in Berlin, Manilow scooped up not only all the Harmonists records he could find, "I went into a Tower Records store there, and there was an entire wall of their CDs." There was also a collection of "Shlagerparades" ("hit parade" collections) from each year of the 1920s and '30s. “That was where I began—I studied the pop music of Germany during the time they were huge,” says Manilow. How was it? "It was fantastic. Song after song after song was interesting and emotional and filled with interesting orchestrations. And the singers—they had their hearts on their sleeves, or they were funny." Not all of it was such unalloyed fun. Amid the jazz and semi-classical and novelty tunes were plenty of marches, including a Bolshevik ditty that inspired an idealistic song in Harmony. Less inspirational but no less memorable: “I actually found a Nazi marching band song," says Manilow. "It was creepy to listen to, but I can tell you, it was brilliant. That's what's so disgusting: They were brilliant and they were monsters at the same time." Though Harmony is decidedly not a Holocaust musical—its narrative ends in 1935—its dramatic grist is indeed the Nazi-led war against multicultural modernity. The pop music ban of 1935 didn't just effectively disband the Harmonists; a reconstituted, Gentile-only version of the group, with the unwieldy, state-mandated name Meistersextett, found nearly their entire old repertoire off-limits. "When the new group tried to do their show and follow guidelines that said they couldn't do songs composed by Jews, with lyrics by Jews, arranged by Jews, or published by Jews," says Manilow, "the only song they had left was 'I Have a Cactus on My Windowsill.'" Indeed, for all their occasionally pointed comedy, the Harmonists were popular entertainers, not protest singers. But their very existence was enough to offend the Third Reich. Says Sussman, "This group represented the very diversity that the German nation at this point was saying was toxic. Not only were there Jews and Gentiles in the group; there was a Bulgarian, an Italian, a Pole, they were from all strata of class. The definition of harmony, the non-musical definition, from the Greek, is diverse elements brought together in a unified synthesis. They were the embodiment of that." When the Nazis later shut down the pop music courses at Frankfurt's Hoch Conservatory in 1933, they didn't just end a brave effort to keep German musicians’ chops current with the sounds of the day. They also nipped in the bud Seiber's ambitious plans for the school's next course of study: vocal jazz. The Comedian Harmonists could have led a master class.

Jun 15, 2021

From the Review Files: Laurents Gets His Revenge on 'West Side Story'

Karen Olivo and cast of the 2009 revival. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Is West Side Story really all that? I've always been much more smitten with the score than with any other aspect of the show (let alone the overrated film, sorry not sorry). Last year I had occasion to review Ivo van Hove's controversial new staging for America magazine, but I still recall the show's previous Broadway revival, a very mixed affair which I reviewed for The Sondheim Review in 2009. I excerpted the review in a previous post; below is the review in its entirety. For the record, the show ran from March 2009 to January 2011.

The librettist’s job may be the most thankless in musical theater: On hand to supply the crucial architecture of story and to spackle the edifice with patches of dialogue, they are otherwise forced to stand aside as the structure they’ve built gets filled in with the songs and dances that give the musical theater its raison d’etre. Adding insult to injury, reviews tend to notice the libretto only when it is found wanting, while credit for a show’s success usually goes to the choreographer/director, the composer, or the star.

If ever a libretto stood in shadow, it was Arthur Laurents’ stark gang-war update of Romeo and Juliet for the century-splitting 1957 musical West Side Story. The idea, after all, had originated with Jerome Robbins, and arguably reached its true fruition in Leonard Bernstein’s vibrant, sense-rattling score—not only its series of deathless songs, with lyrics by a young, crafty Stephen Sondheim, but the sinuous, brawling dance variations with which Robbins definitively dramatized the story’s sex and violence.

Laurents is now having a revenge of sorts, and it is indeed a dish served cold. The new West Side Story he’s directed on Broadway whirs and struts, and occasionally retains its power to startle. The dances, restaged vigorously by Joey McKneely and executed with style and sweat to spare by a tireless company, are nearly worth the price of admission; they remain the show’s enduring treasure, and make us long for a string of dance shows worthy of the town’s best hoofers. But unlike last year’s Broadway revival of Gypsy, in which Laurents’ salutary focus on the book only burnished its glow of perfection, this new West Side Story suffers noticeably from a relentless foregrounding of the show’s weakest link. There’s a good reason this book stayed in the shadows, after all.

Sondheim’s famous discomfort with his sophisticated lyrics for “I Feel Pretty”—a problem addressed if not solved in the new production by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s deft Spanish translation—cuts to the heart of West Side Story’s story problems. Would Maria, an “uneducated Puerto Rican girl,” really sing such tricky internal rhymes in English, Sondheim memorably posited? “She would not have been out of place in Noël Coward’s living room,” he quipped. Fair enough, but once you pick at that loose thread, the whole cloth starts to unravel: What gritty lower-class teen, Puerto Rican or otherwise, would sing a note or dance a step of West Side Story?

Once Laurents goes there—makes concessions to “realism” by having the Sharks speak and sing partly in Spanish, by making the Jets superficially dirtier and shaggier than before (they don’t even wash up for the dance), and by adding an extra jolt or two of violence—we have no choice but to go there with him. And that’s when we start to wonder: Why do the Sharks get idiomatic Español while the Jets remain saddled with “frabbajabba” and “spit hits the fan”? Why this slab of Spanish in one scene, and that swathe of English in another? For a form as marvelously artificial as musical theater, it’s death for an audience to start to think this way.

In the world of opera or ballet—forms with which West Side Story has marked affinities, and in which it could stand with some of the greats—we might not mind the thin characterizations, the precipitous emotional leaps, even the half-baked social criticism. By this measure, Laurents’ book is no worse than, say, the libretto of La boheme. But if Laurents really wants us to fix our attention on his script—“trip to the moon,” “loving is enough,” and all—then he can’t blame us for noticing that what may have shocked audiences in 1957 seems quaint now, and that in grafting Shakespeare’s plot to a mid-century urban setting he replaced the Bard’s language with sub-Odetsian hokum and added little in the bargain.

We should be able to get past this, of course, and maybe a visionary director without such a clear axe to grind—Bartlett Sher, while we’re wishing—could have taken us there. Indeed, for whole scenes at a time, we can see past Laurents’ buttonholing to the better production that might be built around Karen Olivo’s long-limbed, tempestuous Anita, or Curtis Holbrook’s volatile skinhead Action, or even Josefina Scaglione’s doll-pretty Maria, though she’s under-directed here and hopelessly dampened by Matt Cavenaugh’s arch, milquetoast Tony. Indeed, much of the dance at the gym and “Cool,” and all of Olivo’s “America,” could be lifted whole into that dream West Side Story.

So might a fair amount of Miranda’s Spanish dialogue and, in particular, his lyrics. Though they stick out somewhat sorely in Laurents’ conception, “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) and “Hombre Asi” (“A Boy Like That”) deserve a long life beyond this production. So, most definitely, does West Side Story.

Apr 1, 2021

The Passion of La Falconetti

For a time around the turn of the aughts, I and the crew at Back Stage West did an annual "Actors We Love" issue. Over the years the folks I wrote about included Alyson Hannigan, Bob Balaban, Ernst Lubitsch's informal repertory ensemble, the entire company of Theatre of Note—and Falconetti, the star of one of the great films of all time. As I'm about to be a guest on Alissa Wilkinson and Sam Thielman's great podcast Young Adult Movie Ministry to talk about this film, I've revisited my piece on this indelible performance, and share it here with you.

Actors We Love: Maria Falconetti

Mysterious Ways

Back Stage West, June 5, 2003

A cloud of mystery shrouds the actress known to her colleagues simply as "La Falconetti"—even her name, it seems, was open to debate (recorded as Renee at birth, listed in later credits as Maria). Born in Corsica and dead at 54 in Buenos Aires—unofficial capital of mysterious expatriates—she was for a time a celebrated actress/producer of light comedies on the Paris stage. And yet her only film performance, in Carl Theodor Dreyer's anguished 1927 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a raw, riveting portrait of the martyr's spiritual transfiguration. Who was this woman, and where did this otherworldly performance—probably the greatest ever recorded on film—come from?

Accounts of the film's making reveal that Dreyer and Falconetti didn't know where it came from—and that because they knew they didn't know, they cradled this enigma as, in Dreyer's words, "a secret that...should be experienced and not explained." It is known that Dreyer shot the film in sequence, but there are also disturbing reports from the set that he made Falconetti kneel on stones to get her to cry, and he relentlessly repeated takes to get her to go further and further emotionally, to break her, to mold her. This apparent aesthetic sadism may explain a few of Falconetti's more pained expressions, and one should never underestimate the ways a grueling shoot can seep into the emotional color of a sensitive performance. But there's no way to explain the overwhelming power or Falconetti's Joan, undimmed over the decades, except as inspiration of singular, even divine nature.

Based on the transcripts of Joan's trial before a special assembly of the Inquisition, Dreyer's film begins in a courtroom and ends at the stake, spending most of the interim in Joan's cell. There are no establishing shots to speak of and only a fleeting few in which we see Falconetti's whole body; she's disconcertingly small and stiff in these moments. Whole books have been written about the ways Dreyer stretched and subverted the film medium with disorienting angles, multi-valenced sightlines, and discontinuous editing—there are almost no cuts on an action, and only a handful that carry a figure from one shot to the next. And there has been a full accounting of the way Dreyer's severe minimalist aesthetic attains its curious timelessness; Jean Cocteau famously said the film was like "an historical document from an era in which the cinema did not exist."

But there can be no accounting of Falconetti's performance, which transpires almost entirely on the landscape of her dark, unmade-up face, except to record moments: the impossibly wide in eyes of a near-fanatic hearing divine voices, receding to the half-lidded despair of a prophet who understands she'll be misunderstood; the childlike eagerness to trust the hypocrites who dangle Holy Communion before her as a bribe, turning to wracked, tearless sobs of bitter defeat when she realizes the betrayal; the beatific, triumphal glow as she finally overcomes her accusers with an innocence so boundless they eventually crumble in awe. All of these register so strongly, and in such pore-gazing close-up, as to be almost unbearably intimate and moving. Indeed, after a while, though it's a silent film, we can hear Joan's breathless "oui."

If the ephemeral Falconetti left few reliable records of her life, in Passion she left something more: the miraculous leap of the spirit from the body into the camera's watchful, omniscient eye.
Rob Kendt