Review: In ‘Harmony,’ a Band’s Success Collides With History
Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s musical chronicles the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a sextet of Jews and gentiles in Weimar-era Germany.
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For many people, especially those of a certain generation, the name Barry Manilow immediately summons innocuous marshmallow-soft rock. Regardless of whether you interpret that description as comforting or saccharine, it is not necessarily a style you would associate with a show about a Weimar-era vocal group split apart by the rise of Nazism.
And yet here is “Harmony: A New Musical,” a project Manilow and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman have been nursing for over 25 years. It opened on Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, a location bearing the weight of history that adds an extra layer of poignancy to an imperfect but very affecting show.
Those skeptical of the fact that the men behind “Copacabana” could tackle serious matters should perhaps listen closely to “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” or “Even Now,” just two examples of Manilow’s flair. Those 1970s songs are very much of their time yet also ageless, and they embrace dramatic storytelling seasoned with a touch of unabashed sentiment that some may dismiss as sentimental.
They are the aural equivalent of 1950s melodramas by Douglas Sirk like “All That Heaven Allows,” and, as such, not so different from the best numbers in “Harmony,” which are crafted in a defiantly classic mold. Every time the production becomes a little wobbly, those songs steer it back to solid emotional ground.
Presented by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, the show is essentially a biomusical — though not a jukebox — in which Manilow (music) and Sussman (book and lyrics) retrace the saga of the Comedian Harmonists, a sextet made up of Jews and gentiles and whose popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s spread well beyond their Berlin base.
It is at Carnegie Hall in December 1933 that we first meet the band members, performing the lengthy title number, in which the singers emulate jazz instruments before whisking us back to the group’s formation in 1927.
This is when Harry Frommermann (Zal Owen), a supremely gifted arranger and orchestrator, not unlike Manilow himself, places a newspaper ad looking for singers. A crew as motley as it is talented answers the call, as if this were in an episode of “Making the (Boy) Band.” It includes Erwin Bootz (Blake Roman), nicknamed Chopin because of his virtuoso piano playing; the “chain-smoking Bulgarian tenor” Ari Leschnikoff (Steven Telsey), who goes by the nickname Lesh; the wealthy, monocle-wearing medical student Erich Collin (Eric Peters); and the rapscallion bass Bobby Biberti (a very funny Sean Bell, with Danny Kaye vibes).
Rounding out the ensemble is Roman Cycowski (Danny Kornfeld), nicknamed Rabbi because he had been studying in Poland to become one. Rabbi plays a key role, or rather two: His older self, portrayed by the Broadway veteran Chip Zien (the original Baker of “Into the Woods,” “Falsettos”), acts as narrator, both reflecting back on his band’s history and commenting on the various goings-on.
This extra Rabbi is new to the NYTF’s iteration of the musical — “Harmony” premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, then re-emerged in 2014 for runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles — and, at first, he does not feel entirely necessary, especially since Zien also pops up, in a somewhat distracting manner, in a few minor roles.
As we go on, though, Zien’s Rabbi comes into his melancholy own: He is, after all, the one character who knows where this is going, and Zien eventually leaves it all out on the stage in his heartbreaking last song. In case you were wondering what it feels like to cry under a mask, there is a good chance you will find out then.
But before getting to that point, “Harmony” barrels through a lot as it tries to capture the band members’ individual lives and their joint accomplishments: the Comedian Harmonists’ original lineup may have been together only for a relatively brief time, but they were a terrific act and their run was action-packed. (No wonder they have continued to fascinate over the decades, as the subject of a documentary, a book, a feature film, and numerous tributes, including the short-lived 1999 Broadway show “Band in Berlin.”)
The show is in good hands with the director and choreographer Warren Carlyle (“The Music Man,” “Hello, Dolly”). Not only does he maintain a steady pace but he somehow manages to fit ambitious numbers — including the pocket Ziegfeld extravaganza “We’re Goin’ Loco!” and the Kander and Ebbesque “Come to the Fatherland,” in which the Comedian Harmonists become human marionettes — on the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s small stage.
Manilow, Sussman and Carlyle mostly succeed in balancing the shifting moods, which is no easy feat because they must shuffle broad humor and, well, Nazis. The “comedian” in the band’s name was to be taken literally, for example, and the singers were as famous for their stage antics and novelty songs as for their tight singing.
The downside is that there is a thin line between speedy and rushed, and the men are drawn in brushstrokes. A pair of love interests, Mary (Sierra Boggess) and Ruth (Jessie Davidson), are even less than that — one is loving, the other feisty, and that’s pretty much it.
At least those two women get the epic “Where You Go,” which has the heart-on-sleeve grandeur of the finest Michel Legrand ballads. Such “Harmony” songs as that one, “This Is Our Time” and “Every Single Day” create a sense of out-of-time inevitability, yet they also remain grounded in the story: It is impossible to forget why we are watching the show.
Through May 8 at the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Manhattan; nytf.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
Your pollen allergies are overwhelming? This might be why
Pollen has exploded to eye-watering levels this spring in some parts of the country after warm weather pushed plants out of their winter slumber much earlier than normal.
In Atlanta, the pollen count sky rocketed to “extremely high” in early March and stayed high through much of April, according to the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma physicians practice. Farther north in Washington, DC, allergy sufferers have been dreading the lime-green film of pollen covering that covers windshields and porches and piles up on streets and sidewalks.
But these aren’t isolated trends. As the planet warms, researchers say allergy season is starting earlier and lasting longer. And a study from the journal Nature published last year found that pollen count is projected to increase by 200% by the end of the century if planet-warming pollution continues to rise.
Climate Central, a nonprofit focused on climate news and research, recently analyzed how warmer temperatures have affected allergy season in 203 US cities since 1970.
It found that on average, the growing season – the period between the last freeze in spring to the first freeze of fall – is lasting 16 days longer in the Southeast, 15 days longer in the Northeast and 14 days longer in the South.
In the West, growing season is 27 days longer on average, Climate Central reported. Reno, Nevada, for example, has seen a shocking increase of 99 days.
And a longer growing season means a longer allergy season.
Because of climate change, we’re now seeing an earlier and longer growing season for plants, which of course make pollen, which is the enemy of many Americans that suffer from pollen allergies – and mold allergies as well,” Lauren Casey, a meteorologist with Climate Central, told CNN. “Pollen can also trigger an asthma attack, which of course is much more serious for people that suffer from asthma.”
When plants reproduce, typically during the spring, many release tiny pollen grains that are carried by wind. The pollen grains are small enough to be inhaled, and some people’s immune systems react very poorly to the miniscule particles.
More than 24 million people in the US have pollen-induced respiratory allergies like hay fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The center’s data shows that more than one in four adults suffered from seasonal allergies in 2021.
A longer and earlier start to pollen season could trigger a public health emergency, researchers say. As temperatures get warmer in the South and drought plagues the Southwest, pollen from plants like ragweed or poaceae – a plant that typically grows in grasslands or salt-marshes – is projected to be higher across those regions than in the North.
Wind-driven pollen, which plays an important role in plant fertilization, is closely tied to temperature and precipitation changes. So, as spring seasons get warmer earlier due to climate change, plants could pollinate much earlier and for a longer period of time than they currently do.
Mold allergens on the rise
Plant pollen isn’t the only trigger of seasonal allergies. Mold, a type of fungi that reproduces with tiny airborne spores, can also be allergenic for some people and can exacerbate seasonal allergies, according to the report.
While outdoor mold is not as well-studied as pollen, according to the report, one thing is clear: Warmer and wetter weather – conditions that many locations are seeing more of amid the climate crisis – is favorable for mold development.
The Facebook Papers may be the biggest crisis in the company’s history
Facebook has confronted whistleblowers, PR firestorms and Congressional inquiries in recent years. But now it faces a combination of all three at once in what could be the most intense and wide-ranging crisis in the company’s 17-year history.
On Friday, a consortium of 17 US news organizations began publishing a series of stories — collectively called “The Facebook Papers” — based on a trove of hundreds of internal company documents which were included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The consortium, which includes CNN, reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress.
CNN’s coverage includes stories about how coordinated groups on Facebook (FB) sow discord and violence, including on January 6, as well as Facebook (FB)’s challenges moderating content in some non-English-speaking countries, and how human traffickers have used its platforms to exploit people.
The reports from CNN, and the other outlets that are part of the consortium, follow a month of intense scrutiny for the company. The Wall Street Journal previously published a series of stories based on tens of thousands of pages of internal Facebook documents leaked by Haugen. (The consortium’s work is based on many of the same documents.)
The publication of the Journal’s “Facebook Files,” which raised concerns about the impact of Instagram on teen girls, among other issues, prompted a Senate subcomittee hearing with Facebook head of global safety Antigone Davis. Haugen herself then testified before the Senate subcommittee, during which she said she believes that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
There’s currently no end in sight for Facebook’s troubles. Members of the subcommittee have called for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify. And on Friday, another former Facebook employee anonymously filed a complaint against the company to the SEC, with allegations similar to Haugen’s.
Facebook has dealt with scandals over its approach to data privacy, content moderation and competitors before. But the vast trove of documents, and the many stories surely still to come from it, touch on concerns and problems across seemingly every part of its business: its approach to combatting hate speech and misinformation, managing international growth, protecting younger users on its platform and even its ability to accurately measure the size of its massive audience.
All of this raises an uncomfortable question for the company: Is Facebook actually capable of managing the potential for real-world harms from its staggeringly large platforms, or has the social media giant become too big not to fail?
Facebook tries to turn the page
Facebook, for its part, has repeatedly tried to discredit Haugen, and said her testimony and reports on the documents mischaracterize its actions and efforts.
“At the heart of these stories is a premise which is false,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to CNN. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie.”
In a tweet thread last week, the company’s Vice President of Communications, John Pinette, called the Facebook Papers a “curated selection out of millions of documents at Facebook” which “can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us.” But even that response is telling –— if Facebook has more documents that would tell a fuller story, why not release them? (During her Senate testimony Facebook’s Davis said Facebook is “looking for ways to release more research.”)
Instead, Facebook is now reportedly planning to rebrand itself under a new name as early as this week, as the wave of critical coverage continues. (Facebook previously declined to comment on this report.) The move appears to be a clear attempt to turn the page, but a fresh coat of paint won’t fix the underlying issues outlined in the documents — only Facebook, or whatever it may soon be called, can do that.
Take the example of a report published by the Journal on September 16 that highlighted internal Facebook research about a violent Mexican drug cartel, known as Cartél Jalisco Nueva Generación. The cartel was said to be using the platform to post violent content and recruit new members using the acronym “CJNG,” even though it had been designated internally as one of the “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” whose content should be removed. Facebook told the Journal at the time that it was investing in artificial intelligence to bolster its enforcement against such groups.
Despite the Journal’s report last month, last week identified disturbing content linked to the group on Instagram, including photos of guns, and photo and video posts in which people appear to have been shot or beheaded. After asked Facebook about the posts, a spokesperson confirmed that multiple videos flagged were removed for violating the company’s policies, and at least one post had a warning added.
setting Boston Bruins blow 3-1 series lead, eliminated by Florida Panthers from NHL playoffs
The President’s Trophy curse will continue for at least another year as the Boston Bruins fell to the Florida Panthers 4-3 Sunday in an electric Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The Panthers got out to a quick start, going up 2-0. The high-powered Bruins came storming back, scoring three unanswered goals to take the lead.
With a minute left in the third period and the fans at TD Garden in Boston going wild, the Panthers’ Brandon Montour scored to tie the game and send it to overtime, silencing the home crowd.
fter a couple of scoring chances in the overtime period for both teams, Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe scored to eliminate the Bruins from the playoffs.
Florida completed an improbable comeback, from being down 3-1 in the series to winning three straight games to advance to the next round.
The Bruins, who broke the NHL record for most wins (65) and most points (135) in a single season, join a list of teams who took home the President’s Trophy and did not win the Stanley Cup. The President’s Trophy is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points.
The last team to win the award and the Cup in the same year was the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2012-2013 season. The Bruins, who have won the Trophy two other times in the last 10 years, were eliminated both times in the second round of the playoffs (2013-2014, 2019-2020).
The Panthers will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round.
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