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.