When singer Barry Manilow and his writing collaborator, Bruce Sussman, were trying to decide where to re-stage their musical “Harmony,” they thought of several regional markets and eventually decided to approach Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. They knew of its reputation for trying new work but had no connection with it. So they picked up a telephone, called the theater’s main number and asked for Artistic Director Susan Booth, identifying themselves as Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman. When a happy Booth answered a short time later, she said, “Please tell me this is about ‘Harmony.’ ” It was — and the musical soon had a new home.
Booth was already familiar with the show; years before, the Alliance had started a conversation with a producer about staging it. That fell through, so maybe it’s poetic justice of sorts that “Harmony — A New Musical” is now about to open here, with Manilow handling the music and Sussman the book and lyrics.
Booth, Manilow, Sussman and director Tony Speciale joined forces last week at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum to promote the show, which starts previews tonight and will run through October 6 at the Alliance. Booth moderated a question-and-answer session with the three, getting a laugh when she quipped that, in view of how Manilow and Sussman conducted their search for a theater, she’s glad “Alliance” begins with an “A.” The evening also featured two performances from the musical — cast members Hannah Corneau and Leigh Ann Larkin teamed up for “Where You Go,” and actor Shayne Kennon performed “Every Single Day.”
“Harmony” is based on a true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six young men who performed together and were popular in Germany in the 1930s, and played all over the world, until they ran into trouble with the Nazis. Three of them were Jewish, and works by Jewish composers were soon banned. Eventually, the Harmonists were forbidden to perform in public at all.
After Sussman saw a documentary about the group, he knew he had a project to work on. Both he and Manilow were surprised that the Harmonists aren’t better known today given their popularity in their time.
But Sussman knows that writing a musical takes years, with “no shortcuts.” He and Manilow have collaborated for more than four decades, during which Manilow has become a pop culture legend. Yet Manilow’s heart has always been in theater. Both men knew they would have to carve out significant time to create “Harmony.” At other times in Manilow’s career that was not possible, but eventually the timing was right.
The show has taken a non-linear path to Atlanta. It began in California at the La Jolla Playhouse, where it previewed in October 1997. In 2003 it was prepped for a run in Philadelphia, with the goal of going to Broadway, but those plans ended unexpectedly for financial reasons. Manilow and Sussman then had to win back the rights to the show, which happened in 2005.
“Harmony” is yet another high-profile musical offering from Booth, whose theater has staged many shows that have gone to Broadway, such as “The Color Purple” and “Sister Act.” This is only the second staging of the musical, which will go to Los Angeles after its Atlanta run.
Booth is proud that the Alliance, and the city, have embraced new theatrical work and that that fact has become known nationally. She also commends Manilow and Sussman for picking Speciale as director. “They made an elegant and unexpected choice,” she says.
Sussman had seen Speciale’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with Bebe Neuwirth and Christina Ricci, in New York and knew that the director has a passion for original material, such as his acclaimed “Unnatural Acts.” “We met and by the end I felt, ‘I have a shot at this,’” says Speciale. “I talked to Susan Booth, everything checked out, and I got it.” Getting the job was especially satisfying because Manilow and Sussman also interviewed some high-profile directors, many with Broadway credits, before opting for Speciale.
The creative team has worked hard to strike a balance with “Harmony.” “It’s not a musical comedy,” says Speciale. “These men were lighthearted, full of youthful exuberance. We’ve heightened that, but there is a point in the show where it turns darker.”
The director has worked closely with Manilow and Sussman, and almost an hour has been trimmed from the original first act. “We’ve taken a look at every line, every song, asking why it’s here,” Speciale says. “We’ve looked at everything. They are not afraid of cutting. This is not a revival; it’s a complete rehaul. The story is the same, but with the exception of Barry and Bruce, everyone else is new.”