Saturday, September 14, 2013


Having Harmony premier in your home town is like hitting a million-dollar jackpot in Vegas.  Not only did Barry's most anticipated project finally come to fruition, but getting to see it involved a babysitter, not plane tickets and hotel reservations.

The potential down side is having two very pissed-off gentlemen on my front door step if they don't like what's in this memoir.  ;-)

There are two things I was anticipating most about Harmony.

1)  Something new.  A story that had not been told widely, or at the very least, a new perspective on an established one.  Think of "Wicked" for the latter.  Most new plays and musicals on and off Broadway are rehashes of popular movies with some schlock soundtrack added on.  The theatres showing these easy send-ups should be distributing Astroglide and hand towels at the door rather than Playbills.   "Hairspray" did not need to be made into a musical.  John Waters' original soundtrack was perfect as-is.  Ditto "Bring it On" and "Legally Blonde".  If I want to see one of these, Red Box and Netflix are ready when I am.  So how exciting is it to have Barry and Bruce (B&B) discover a story that, like buried treasure, was glorious in its time but is now new and exciting to a completely different generation waiting to rediscover it?

2)  The historical perspective.  I'm a history nut, entrenched in organizations packed with other history nuts.  Ask any major heritage society and explore their museums, the focus of their educational efforts is on the everyday life of the everyday person in the context of major historical events.  From Plimoth Plantation, to the DAR Museum in DC, to Colonial Williamsburg, you'll see reenactors speaking as people of their time, wearing clothing of the time, engaged in trades of the time, rooms decorated and furnished of the time.  Dates and places and major historical personages are merely a framework for real history.  Real history is in the decisions and thoughts and reactions by ordinary people to those landmark events that make the schoolbooks.  To go back to movies as an example, think "Gangs of New York" (a cross section of mid-19th century gang activity in the context of the Anti Conscription Riots) and "The Patriot" (a fictionalized accounting of Revolutionary war hero Francis Marion.)

The flip side of this is that there is a fine line between analyzing history from different perspectives and rewriting it through the prism of whatever sociopolitical standards are in place for a given decade or generation.  (In short, what is "politically correct".)  The placement of that line varies with whoever is doing the talking.

I didn't see the LaJolla production so this is going to be an absolutely fresh look at the play.  WARNING:  spoilers throughout.  There is no way to get your feelings across on Harmony without including some spoilers.  So those will be posted in white text with a white background.  Skip if you don't want to read it.  If you do, highlight it with your cursor.

Like the one below.

This is spoiler space.  Congratulations!  You found it!

Here we go....

The two acts of the play present present two different stages of the Harmonists' careers.  The first act, you get to know the characters and their lives, their likes, their hangups, their loves, and their weaknesses.  By the end of the first act through the second, we start learning about the struggles of their choices in their every-day, now-famous lives as Germany's low-point in history explodes around them.  The first act is lighter:   this is where the love stories are born.  Even the personal struggles (SPOILER) (Erich afraid to tell his parents that he wants to give up medicine for singing, for example.  Rabbi and Mary getting married, Ruth's Communist organizing, the Harmonists' first big-time gig getting nearly derailed by stolen outfits.  My husband tells me the height of humiliation is being forced to be seen in public in boxer shorts.  I didn't ask how he knew this.) are addressed with lighthearted optimism.

But as the frequently shifting political landscape in Germany starts leaning toward the Third Reich, the situations and relationships and questions become weightier.  It's easy to "agree to disagree" with politics or religion with neighbors or even family members during peaceful and prosperous times.  It's easy to be enlightened and "tolerant" when no one is forcing you to defend your viewpoint - especially with your life.  Everyone wants to be that "stand up guy" who stares death in the face when his sacred beliefs are challenged.  The fact is, most people are not willing martyrs.  Most people don't think martyrdom  is the right course to take when faced with a life-or-death choice.  (cf Thomas More)

First, the band has to decide if they should return "home" from New York after their world tour ends.  They hear of other Germans jumping ship, so to speak, and emigrating to America.  How do you know, without hindsight, whether staying or returning is the mistake?  You don't; and the decisions and scenarios go downhill from there.


In the middle of a joyful performance ("Hungarian Rhapsody #20") a couple of Nazi thugs boo the performance and disrupt the evening.  They are chastized by a high ranking officer who apologizes to the band.  During the Sep 6 performance, Pete and I were sitting near the aisle where the general (?) appeared.  It wasn't until I felt a sharp cramp in the base of my neck that I realized how still I was sitting and how little I was breathing.  It was just some dude playing a role and wearing a costume - but his presence was paralyzing.  I could barely remember my own name, let alone make a profound moral decision.   Then the officer demands that the show restart by clapping in time to the suspended music.  The rest of the audience joined in.  I'm looking around like everyone else was from Mars:  "Hel-LO!!!  I know it's just an actor, but do you people see yourselves???  You're following a Nazi's lead, what's the matter with you?"

Then this same officer shows up backstage at the Harmonists' show as a "big fan" requesting an autograph on his favorite record.  How do you respond to a "fan" whose very existence is not only a threat to some of your friends and family, but offends your every sensibility?    There is no way in hell that this was a hypothetical question for Barry.  

Again and again, the characters are faced with the same dilemma that is debated today:  is it better to speak out and make yourself a target for the evil threatening your society and your lives, or is it better to keep your head down, get out of town, and find a way to save as many as you can along the way?    What happens to your lives and relationships when the ones you love have a different answer to that dilemma than you do?   Is it wrong to go on with life - especially the good, happy parts - if the rest of the world is crumbling? "Harmony" can't answer that question once and for all because there were as many different answers as there were people confronted with it.  And even those answers will flex and evolve decade by decade as the debate rolls on.

In these extreme historical circumstances, hope and despair, love and disgust, were not just interchangeable, they were the same thing.  "Where You Go" was both a confirmation of love, and a warning of the guilt that goes with making the wrong choice to act or flee.  "Stars in the Night" questioned how life could continue even as human nature dug itself to new depths.  "In This World" was a futile attempt to create a fantasy musical movie even as Chopin wondered if he would ever see his wife again and what she was suffering.

What I appreciated most about "Harmony" was the balance of catchy music, complex performances and thought-provoking ideas that go far beyond the script itself.  This isn't "fluff" for kids or the faint of heart, even though I can't get the theme song out of my head, after seeing two performances in as many weeks.    I enjoy seeing several performances to watch how the show evolves.   For example, on 9/6, the second act started with the boogie-woogie "Something Like Paradise" to contrast the US life with Germany about the same time.  Tonight, that song was removed.  B&B, please don't get pissed at this - good call.  I didn't miss that number at all and the play flowed better without it.

Bottom line:  When you go to see "Harmony", pack your brains alongside your sense of humor.  You'll need them.  (Get tickets online.)

Fun stuff:

For obvious reasons (obvious = philistines who don't know how to behave themselves in a theatre and can't tell the difference between a Broadway-quality play and one of Barry's concerts) Barry's not going to be "out and about" much.  On 9/6 we were treated to a Flight of the Blue Angels-type appearance.  I'd choreograph my security detail as well if  I was wound tighter than a spring over the opening performance and I had to deal with this lot right outside of the theatre.

Bruce is a sweetheart and seemed to enjoy chatting about the work he was doing on the show.  Easiest guy in the world to approach with questions or congratulations or whatever.  Bruce, if you're reading this, thanks for not classifying me as one of the "psychotic weirdos".  At least I hope you haven't.

We're looking forward to at least a couple more performances - whatever we can find a babysitter for.
Congrats on a stellar opening and my hopes go with you that "Harmony" will get the reception it deserves.

No comments:

Post a Comment