When Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman cold-called the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta peddling a long-cherished musical theatre project, they got through the theatre employee screening the call (who offered a dubious "Yeah, sure") and were ultimately patched through to Susan V. Booth, Jennings Hertz artistic director. Booth's first words upon answering the phone: "Gentlemen, please tell me you're calling about Harmony."
In fact, they were. "We were on the phone for about an hour, and by the time we hung up, we had an opening night," recalled Sussman. "No lawyers, no nothing."
The lights considered to run green as representatives of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, hearing of the Alliance run, called Sussman and Manilow to express interest in a co-production. With that, the long overdue harmonic convergence was complete. Sixteen years after its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse and scuttled plans for a Broadway run, Harmony would sing anew.
And given the path that this "new musical" — which opened March 12 at the Ahmanson Theatre, featuring music by Manilow and book and lyrics by Sussman — has taken to achieve a second life, its creators are still practically pinching themselves over the show's newfound good fortune.
"Ask anyone who has been there, from La Jolla all the way to here, they would always tell you that Harmony was a wonderful show that deserved a future," said Manilow, "but we always got stuck climbing that mountain. I've really got to take my hat off to the people who get their shows up. I mean it, man. Don't ask me what I think of [the content]. If they can get their show up, my hat's off to them."
|photo by Craig Schwartz|
Sitting in the theatre's green room the morning after Harmony's first preview, Manilow and Sussman batted around stories and memories — pop musical and theatrical — with the ease that comes of being long-time collaborators. Sussman recalled being asked to write additional material for a young singer who had a four-song demo tape and, upon listening to the tape, Sussman advised the singer that the musician on that tape had talent. The composer, arranger and pianist were all one person, a young man from Brooklyn named Barry Manilow who was working his way out of the mailroom at CBS. If he and Manilow were ever in the same room, Sussman said, introduce us.
Some 10 months later, the two future partners met. "And we talked theatre," said Manilow who had written a musical adaptation of the melodrama The Drunkard at the age of 19.
"We met to write shows," insisted Sussman. "People hear Harmony and say, 'Oh this doesn't sound like Barry Manilow,' and I say, "You've got that backwards. It was the pop career that was a diversion."
"When (record producer) Clive Davis gave me 'Mandy,' it was a rock and roll song, so I used my arranging chops to make it into a big ballad, the first power ballad ever," returned Manilow. "That was because I love arranging and producing and coming up with ideas. I took all those things I learned over the years from cabaret and from theatre and put them into the pop music world. All those key changes everybody talks about... they come from Bye Bye Birdie. I loved getting up on stage, but I am much more comfortable doing this."
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