It’s not every day I get to sit down with a songwriter who co-wrote one of the most iconic pop songs in history — a song beloved by generations, inspiring a CBS made-for-TV movie and live stage show that debuted at London’s West End, eventually making its way to Broadway. That song is Copacabana (At the Copa), and the co-songwriter is Bruce Sussman.
As a longtime collaborator with the legendary Barry Manilow, Sussman’s success as a songwriter includes not only pop music juggernauts but also a litany of major animated film theme songs, musical books, and his most recent passion project and Broadway success, Harmony, A New Musical.
Of course, I couldn’t resist talking about Copacabana before beginning the interview — I was having a total fanboy moment.
As for Harmony, it’s a compelling collaboration between the renowned Sussman and Manilow. It’s been captivating audiences with a true story most of us know nothing about. The celebrated song-writing duo hopes to change that with an emotional stage experience that will finally grant the show’s protagonists their rightful place in entertainment history.
I had the pleasure of discussing this new endeavor with Sussman. He shared that it took years to complete, and for him, as a proud Jewish American, it was so much more than just another musical. Harmony is about the lives of the Comedian Harmonists, a well-known German vocal group that gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. They were on the verge of becoming massive stars at the time, equivalent to the popularity of a hit boy band by today’s standards.
Then suddenly, with the emergence of the Nazi dictatorship, their world was upended, and their careers derailed as the horrific turbulence of World War II unfolded. When people think of Broadway musicals, they’re often thought of as uplifting and fun. I asked Sussman about the challenges of creating an entertaining musical but with a subtext of dark subject matters such as Nazis and the holocaust.
As Sussman explained, the production combines great music numbers, romance, humor, heart break and actual history to create a riveting show. However, it also unintentionally reflects today’s modern headlines of growing antisemitism globally,
It’s head spinning, Corey. Every time we did a production of Harmony, Atlanta, Los Angeles, the regional productions, the tryout productions, people always said, ‘Oh, it’s a perfect time for this show now because there’s a spike in antisemitism worldwide.’
Then we get to New York, and this happens (Hamas attack, October 7th, 2023). It’s just jaw-dropping. And there are now lines in the show where people have an audible response or applaud when the lines happen. That never happened before. And it’s happening because the show resonates in a way it never has —because of the headlines.
It’s to a point where it concerns me, and I say, God, it’s great that they have this response, but do they think that I’m writing this to the headlines rather than the fact that these lines are 15 and 20 years old and are simply getting a response now that they’ve never gotten before?
Sussman’s close attention to audience response to the show’s lines come as no surprise. The celebrated wordsmith explained that there is a distinct difference between stating “6 million Jews were killed in the holocaust” —and telling the individual stories of those people. And with that in mind, Sussman also wrote Harmony’s accompanying book which won him the 2022 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book from a Musical. Such an accolade has a special meaning, as he explained the origin of this prestigious honor,
The Drama Award is so singularly focused. It’s an “in the know” group of people who write exclusively about the theater. I didn’t know this until I went to the awards: The term “Drama Desk Award” was born in the 1950s when every newspaper in the country had a financial desk, a sports desk, a news desk, and a drama desk.
Harmony continues to receive high praise from reviewers and theater audiences in equal measure. The musical has established itself as one of Broadway’s must-see shows, not just because of the intriguing story but, notably, the performances of its outstanding cast. Over the past few months, I’ve seen the cast perform on various national news shows. I have read consistently positive reviews about how they masterfully bring their characters to life for audiences every night.
Sussman beams like a proud Papa when discussing how the cast members keep him in awe with their skills, distinct, unique charisma and how they’ve all formed a true kinship, much like the bond between the real Comedian Harmonists,
When they individually came in, yes, they knocked us out. But it was a long, grueling process. We were in casting for four or five months. So we knew with the principles; we pretty much had them with Chip Zion, Sierra Bogguss, and Julie Banko. That was straightforward. But the six, it was not only finding six triple threats but also trying to capture in each of them the essence of who these six real individuals were.
And you know, a director once told me, cast the actor in neutral, who best replicates the character you wrote. And we, we managed to do that. They’re wonderful. The six of them are great. They are so young and talented, and there’s nothing we can’t ask them to do. Like, hey, can you do that again, but do it standing on your head and spinning around?
I mean, they’ll do it. They’ll just go ahead and do it. They’re remarkable.
In the sometimes-stagnant world of Broadway shows, Harmony, emerges as a shining gem. It weaves together new music, a historical reflection from a century ago, and a depiction of what the Comedian Harmonists endured. And as Sussman is grateful for the continued buzz around Harmony, he also shares what he hopes is a crucial takeaway for audiences after they’ve seen the show,
For me, it’s very simple Corey. I hope people, just like you, learn about this story — a story they did not know, and learn who these six remarkable guys were. How three Jews and three Gentiles got together and created something beautiful. And how that’s the way it could be, rather than what happened to them.
I told somebody that I saw “Funny Girl” when I was a kid. I didn’t know who Fannie Brice was. I learned who Fannie Brice was by seeing that show. I hope some young and not-so-young people come to Harmony and get to know who the Comedian Harmonists were and what an extraordinary story they lived.
That would make me very, very happy. These are people worth remembering, and this is a story that should be remembered.
Don’t miss the chance to witness Broadway at its best with Harmony, a true celebration of the indomitable strength of the human spirit. Follow Harmony A New Musical on Instagram
Listen to the full interview with Bruce Sussman interviewed by Instinct Contributing Writer Corey Andrew (The Core Issues Podcast):