Band in Berlin Goes Silent March 21 at Helen Hayes; What's Next for Hayes?

News   Band in Berlin Goes Silent March 21 at Helen Hayes; What's Next for Hayes?
 
Band in Berlin, the Broadway musical about harmony in hard times, will give into hard times itself, closing March 21 at the Helen Hayes Theatre after poor reviews and audience disinterest.
Hudson Shad as the Comedian Harmonists.
Hudson Shad as the Comedian Harmonists. Photo by Photo by Carol Rosegg

Band in Berlin, the Broadway musical about harmony in hard times, will give into hard times itself, closing March 21 at the Helen Hayes Theatre after poor reviews and audience disinterest.

The musical documentary about Germany's Comedian Harmonists, the popular vocal sextet squelched by the Nazis, opened March 7 after previews that began Feb. 19. By March 21, it will have played 19 previews and 17 regular performances.

The week ending March 14, Band in Berlin played to 48.3 percent audience capacity, according to statistics released by the League of American Theatres and Producers.

The closing now leaves room for a small-cast or intimate show to open in the 499-seat Hayes in time to be eligible for Tony Award nominations.

Among the most obviously viable small-cast or one-set shows are Christopher Durang's critically-embraced Betty's Summer Vacation (now extended at Playwrights Horizons to April 11); Off-Broadway's Wit, the drama that made a plea to be Tony-worthy despite its downtown venue; and the Goodspeed Opera House's By Jeeves, which carries with it the Andrew Lloyd Webber brand name. The Goodspeed has for months had plans to bring its production of By Jeeves to New York. Last December, Playbill On-Line learned that Goodspeed executive director Michael Price and Lloyd Webber were looking at Broadway houses with an eye to opening Jeeves in time for the Tony deadline April 28.

With Broadway so cramped, the entry of Jeeves necessarily involved the closing of another show. Sources have speculated that the Lloyd Webber musical would move into the Hayes if Berlin failed to strike gold.

The Goodspeed has also discussed with the Roundabout Theatre Company the possibility of including Jeeves in their season, said Goodspeed spokesperson Jennifer Wislocki. She added, however, that the talks did not go far and the prospect was unlikely.

Lloyd Webber et al may have been encouraged to act on By Jeeves by the thus-far tepid showing among new musicals this season. Wislocki said she didn't know whether the paucity of Broadway musical offerings had influenced the Goodspeed's decision but admitted she "had heard talk along those lines." Theatre reporter Ken Mandelbaum has reported that Wit may move from its home at the Union Square Theatre to the Hayes in time to make the Tony cut. Spokespersons for the show's playwright, Margaret Edson, and director, Derek Anson Jones, denied the show was moving.

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In Band in Berlin, members of the real-life vocal sextet, the Hudson Shad, impersonate the historic Harmonists, the popular Nazi-era singing act that was silenced by Hitler's regime.The 100-minute, intermissionless Band in Berlin utilizes film, voiceover, projections and shadow puppetry and features songs that became closely identified with the Harmonists: "Stormy Weather," "Night and Day," "Tea for Two," "Whistle While You Work," Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call" and even a vocal "arrangement" of the overture to The Barber of Seville.

Co-director, playwright and co-conceiver Susan Feldman's musical, seen in March 1998 at Philadelphia's American Music Theatre Festival, features 21 period songs from the original Harmonists' repertoire.

The Comedian Harmonists were a six-member, male vocal group (five vocalists and a pianist) with a smooth, lighthearted elegance. They rose to international fame in the 1920s with tours and recordings, including a performance at Radio City Music Hall. Because three of the members were Jewish, the group was squelched with the rise of Hitler's Third Reich, and the group disbanded.

The Harmonists' music was eventually deemed "inappropriate for the morale of the German people," according to the show's production notes. Design elements in the show (including the unusual print advertising) incorporate banned art of the period, underlining the suppression of European artists.

The group's surviving member, Roman Cykowski, who is used as the show's off-stage narrator (played by Herbert Rubens), died Nov. 11, 1998. He was 97.

The Harmonists are played by Mark Bleeke, as bass Leshnikoff; Timothy Leigh Evans, as second tenor Collin; Hugo Munday, as lyric baritone Frommermann; Peter Becker, as baritone Cykowski; Wilbur Pauley as bass Biberti; and Robert Wolinsky as pianist Bootz.

The production is co-conceived, co-directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch, whose musical staging credits range from Grease to Pacific Overtures . Robert V. Strauss, Jeffrey Ash, Randall L. Wreghitt and Gayle A. Francis are producers.

Berlin played the American Music Theatre Festival March 11-22, 1998, at the WHYY Forum Theatre in Philadelphia. That staging also featured the Hudson Shad, overseen by Feldman and Birch. The show was originally staged as a workshop at Arts at St. Ann's in April 1992. It was further developed and ran 39 performances at the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, NY in 1994 and was adapted for radio by Feldman in 1995.

Designers are Douglas Schmidt (scenic), Jonathan Bixby (costume), Kirk Bookman (lighting), Richard Law (visual images), David Schnirman (sound), Anthony Chase (filmmaker-editor) and Rick Rondine (filmmaker). Wilbur Pauley, of the Hudson Shad, is musical director and arranger.

The Helen Hayes Theatre is at 240 W. 44th St. Tickets are $65. Call (212) 239-6200.

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At least two other Comedian Harmonists projects exist. Barry Manilow is developing a Harmonists musical, Harmony, which was seen at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Miramax Films will release "The Harmonists," by director Jose Vilsmaier and screenwriter Klaus Richter.

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