Actor Allison Semmes can sum up Broadway's Harmony in a single word. "It's humanity," she says. Semmes currently plays real-life entertainer Josephine Baker, in a new musical that is, at its core, a true story. Harmony, written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman and based in part on an archive curated by the late Dr. Peter Czada, tells the true story of The Comedian Harmonists, a Berlin singing group made up of six young men. In the 1920s and 1930s they were widely successful, with sold-out shows, popular records, and blockbuster films. After 1935, they were never heard from again—until now.
Five of the six Harmonists—played by Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey—are making their Broadway debuts. But all six actors have been collaborating with the show's director and choreographer, Warren Carlyle, helping to develop Harmony over the last three years.
"Harmony is different than anything I've done before" says Carlyle, who has choreographed numerous Broadway productions including The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate, and Hello, Dolly!. "It's real characters with real problems, who have to move in a somewhat realistic way. But of course, me being me, I have to and I want to entertain."
Entertain is just what the Comedian Harmonists did, according to Harmony composer Barry Manilow. "The six guys were the Manhattan Transfer meets the Marx Brothers," says Manilow. "They were brilliant and they were huge—I mean HUGE." Manilow did his homework for writing the music. "I was in Berlin and I went to a ton of record stores [and] there was a whole wall of The Comedian Harmonists," he says. "I bought all of them, from 1920 to 1940, two shopping bags of CDs."
The show's lyricist and book writer Bruce Sussman believes his musical partner Manilow is just as brilliant as the Harmonists themselves. "He has this virtuosic ability to write in any style you ask him to," says Sussman, recollecting on how he asked Manilow to compose some challenging musical material for the show. "I said 'Liszt wrote 19 Hungarian rhapsodies, why don't you write the 20th?"
Julie Benko, who plays Ruth, also gushed about having the opportunity to work with musical powerhouse Manilow. "I got to spend three hours with him recording the cast album—just me and Barry," she says, before jokingly added. "Look out for him—he's going to do things and go places."
Broadway veteran Chip Zien plays an older version of one of the Harmonists, Rabbi, and looks at the experience of performing in Harmony with gratitude, ethusing "I can't believe that this role somehow came to me at this stage in my life."
Sierra Boggess, who plays Mary—the love interest of Young Rabbi—feels that her role has equal depth. "She's present with what's going on in the world in a way that perhaps even her husband isn't," she says. Boggess relates to her character's love of music and connection to the Harmonists. "I love a boyband," she says, with a cheeky smile. See more of the cast and the creators in the video above.
The cast also includes Zak Edwards, Dan Hoy, Bruce Landry, RhonniRose Mantilla, Daniel Z. Miller, Benjamin H. Moore, Matthew Mucha, Constantine Pappas, Kayleen Seidl, Kyla Stone, Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Wesler, Stuart Zagnit, and Lee Zarrett.
The creative includes scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designers Linda Cho and Ricky Lurie, lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier, wig and hair designer Tom Watson, music director John O'Neill, music coordinator Michael Aarons, and production stage manager Scott Taylor Rollison. Media design is by batwin and robin productions. Orchestrations are by Doug Walter, and casting is by Jamibeth Margolis.