Band in Berlin comes too late with too little. The Comedian Harmonists, a German prewar close-harmony group of five singers and a pianist, was half Aryan and half Jewish. They had great success all over Europe and even here, but under increasing Nazi pressure had to disband in 1935. Neither the three Jews in exile nor the three Aryan stay-at-homes managed to carry on as a band. Roman Cycowski, the last survivor, who became a cantor in Palm Springs, died last November, at 97. Their story is told, with some embellishments but very effectively, in the German movie The Harmonists, which just opened in New York. The Broadway show, in most respects, cannot compete with it.
Band started modestly some years ago as a St. Anne’s Church production in Brooklyn, then branched out to theaters in Rochester and Philadelphia, coming to Broadway only because an Off Broadway deal fell through. “Written and conceived by Susan Feldman,” but more conceived than written, it really has no book, although in filmed, faux-documentary sequences an actor portraying an aged Cycowski provides a specious narration. Notwithstanding numerous slide projections and near-continuous renditions of more than twenty songs from the Harmonists’ repertoire – in German and French as well as in English – we do not get to know the lives, the human problems, of the Harmonists and the people around them.
The six performers here have founded a similar group, calling itself Hudson Shad, but are at best shadows of the originals, whom we can now hear on CD or on the soundtrack of the movie. At the Helen Hayes Theatre, we get a rather elderly group of performers, suggesting a musicale at an old actors’ or musicians’ home. The singing is professional, but the mugging and horseplay are amateurish, with one shining exception: Wilbur Pauley, who is also the musical director, has a fine operatic bass, but also knows how to amuse with face, body, and voice – we can even overlook his anachronistic hairdo.
The real disaster is Herbert Rubens, as the filmed Cycowski. In accent and manner, he is an Eastern European rather than Central European Jew – a very different thing – and utterly charmless to boot. Dubious, too, are the slides: one work apiece by any number of “degenerate” artists with censored stamped across it. This does justice neither to those artists (underrepresented) nor to the Harmonists (overshadowed) and suggests nothing so much as a lecture in some church basement. I do not blame the conceivers, Wilbur Pauley and the choreographer Patricia Birch, who also co-directed with the author. But except that the show gives you more songs than the movie, it is, despite the criminally jacked-up New York movie prices, a much less good buy.