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The stage veteran returns to Broadway in Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's musical about a real-life vocal ensemble destroyed by the Nazis
In comedy, timing is everything. And the timing of the Broadway premiere of Harmony, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's musical about the humorous vocal ensemble The Comedian Harmonists, seems fated, perhaps even fateful. Although the show has been in development for more than a quarter century—its first iteration bowed at California's La Jolla Playhouse in 1997—the current mounting at the Barrymore Theatre is opening during a moment of rampant anti-Semitism. The climate gives increased resonance to this real-life story of a famous, Berlin-based singing sextet with Jewish and gentile members that was undone by the Nazis.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, this production is a transfer from Off Broadway's National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, where Harmony enjoyed a critically acclaimed run last year. That's where Manilow and Sussman made a savvy addition to the script: the character of Rabbi, the last surviving member of the group, who narrates the bittersweet tale. Broadway veteran Chip Zien—beloved for his turns as the Baker in the original production of Into the Woods and Mendel in Falsettos—plays the part, a man haunted by history who confronts his regret over the choices he and his compatriots made as the Nazis rose to power. Rabbi's emotions culminate in a stunning lament called "Threnody," which Zien calls "the most complicated song I've ever had to perform."
TDF Stages spoke with Zien about working with pop legend Barry Manilow, how playing Rabbi connects him to his Jewish identity and why this story feels more urgent than ever.
Sarah Rebell: Early in the show, the younger version of your character Rabbi says he wanted to join The Comedian Harmonists so he could "sing in a major key for once." Growing up Jewish, did you view your experience as being in a minor key, so to speak? Or did you feel the joy and humor that are also part of our culture?
Chip Zien: I always thought that the music in the religious services was just beautiful. I appreciated the minor key! When I was younger, I was trying to compose music. The orchestrator Michael Starobin once commented, "You sound like you're writing very religious Jewish music because you tend toward that minor scale." So, I guess it did have an impact on me. But I thought of it as sensitive and emotional rather than sad. Being at my temple—which was Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—I always felt that it was a joyful place to get together with my friends. I think from my dad, I thought of the Jewish experience as being people who love to laugh and love comedy. My dad was funny. I blame him for some of whatever I'm doing now.
Rebell: As your character shares his harrowing memories, many of his songs have a quality of lamentation. What's it like for you to perform those powerful elegies on stage, which sound nothing like traditional show tunes or Barry Manilow's hits?
Zien: When my agent sent me the show, I hadn't heard the music. And I had never heard the word threnody, which is defined as a lament. I was curious about what Barry Manilow had written and, when I listened, I was stunned by the score, especially "Threnody." We did a workshop before we did the show downtown, and I was struggling to learn the number. "It's idiosyncratic because the rhythm is tricky. The freedom within the structure of the song gets complicated. The melody is also very tricky and quite rangy. I've been very lucky to sing complicated music in my career, but this took the cake. In the workshop, I thought I didn't do it justice. But it was still impactful, even though I completely messed it up. It's all about guilt and rage and it's a gift for someone my age to be given such an emotional moment in a show.
Rebell: How did you ultimately master "Threnody"?
Zien: Barry Manilow said, "I'm going to send you your entire part, every piece of music you sing in the show. And I'm going to put it in your key." And he did that. I have 30 tracks of every single thing I sing in the show recorded by Barry Manilow. It's amazing. And that made it easier for me to learn.
Rebell: Harmony has been kicking around for a while. But your role of the older Rabbi is new. What's it like originating a part in this new-old musical?
Zien: When they started it, I was at an age when I would have wanted to be one of the Harmonists. And I'm really good friends with Danny Burstein [who originated the role of young Rabbi in La Jolla in 1997]. You know, he met his wife, Rebecca Luker, doing Harmony. But somehow, I was unaware of the show at that time. I would have been very jealous of those guys who were in it had I known about it!
When Warren Carlyle came on board, they did a reading that didn't have my character in the show. But between Warren and Bruce and Barry, they decided to try the device [of his character]. I think that's what the workshop was basically all about, to see if the device of having a narrator threading in and out of the action worked. The show became a memory piece. My character was, in fact, the oldest surviving member. He lived well into his nineties. So, there was a certain logic to it. And it created a part for a more senior actor like me. I feel very lucky about that.
Rebell: Did anything about Rabbi's story resonate with you as a Jewish performer?
Zien: Oh, it resonates with me all over the place. I've had my own traumas in my life. What I always say about acting is that I am the character. I don't feel I have to travel to become a character. I find within myself the things that resonate with the character I'm playing. I don't like to think that the character is outside of me. In a strange, wonderful way, I always feel it is an intimate experience. I've had so many things happen to me in my life, and I feel all of it is up there on the stage. It's like reexperiencing my past in some bizarre way.
Rebell: Because of the current turmoil in Israel and Gaza, there's been a marked increase in anti-Semitism and hate crimes. When I saw the synagogue get vandalized in Harmony, it felt much more viscerally upsetting than any anti-Semitic attack I had ever seen on stage. What's it like performing in this show in the immediate aftermath of the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust?
Zien: I'm astounded that we find ourselves on Broadway at this moment with all this going on. We have some concerns about protests and things that are going on around us. The Shuberts have added extra security to the theatre community. We're particularly aware of it in that scene you mentioned where the glass windows of the synagogue get smashed. We have people coming to the stage door who ask us the question that you just asked me. Even people who have just returned from Israel. Sadly, I think the show is horribly relevant at this moment. The metaphor is harmony: we have to find some way to get to some safe, realistic relationship between the Jews and the Palestinian population.
Rebell: At the beginning of our conversation, I brought up a line that stuck with me from early in the show. I'd like to end by quoting another memorable line from later in the musical: "Throughout the course of history, the failure of democracies has set the stage for the success of tyrants. Greed and hatred is a proven formula for success."
Zien: That's [a paraphrase] of Einstein [who Zien plays briefly in the show]. I just love everything I say in that scene as Einstein. It resonates very deeply with me on every level.
There's another line that precedes the one you just brought up: "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing." Once in a while that line gets applause from the audience. We never anticipated that would happen, but it's because of the moment in which we find ourselves. I hope that our audience feels a responsibility to solve problems and elect leaders who protect democracy. We all have our individual responsibilities to the greater good.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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