Harmony Is Still Heavenly

  • Ah, the divine decadence of Weimar Berlin! Brecht and Weill making acerbic music; Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau creating film metaphors for Germany in chaos; famous artists like Grosz and Ernst--and a failed painter named Hitler. It was all so exciting, also grim. But amid the ferment, a buoyant sound could be heard: the impish artistry of the Comedian Harmonists. From 1928 until it was banned and disbanded by the Nazis in 1934, this male sextet brought smiles to Berliners in the political and economic dumps. One could almost believe the sentiment behind its hit tune Wochenend und Sonnenschein: Happy days are here again.

    Sixty-five years later, the good times are back for the Comedian Harmonists. A Broadway show about the group, Band in Berlin, and a Miramax film, The Harmonists (already a hit in Germany), both opened last week. Another show, Veronika, der Lenz ist da (named for one of its hits), has run in Berlin for more than a year. Barry Manilow is fine-tuning his own musical, Harmony, with an eye to a Broadway opening next year. Harmonist acolytes have paid the group tribute in concert and on compact disc in Germany, Britain and the U.S., where CDs of the original recordings are selling briskly. The Comedian Harmonists can't go on a reunion tour like the Drifters--the last surviving member died last year at 97--but it is suddenly the world's hottest oldies act.

    What's the appeal? On one level a tale of plangent melodrama: a group with three Jewish and three Gentile members trying to stand tall and cool under the Nazi boot. The Comedian Harmonists had some friends in high places, including Gauleiter Julius Streicher. At one concert a punk in the balcony shouted venom about the dirty Jews, but the Nazi brass in the front rows stood and cheered the group until the punk shut up.

    But the end was near. On March 24, 1934, the Comedian Harmonists sang its signature closing tune, Auf Wiederseh'n, My Dear, for the last time. The three Jews went abroad and formed a new outfit, the Comedy Harmonists, while the others stayed in Berlin, recruited new members as Das Meistersextett (the Master Sextet). Neither faction enjoyed the fame of the original group--an emblem, a casualty and a lovely memory of a fractious age.

    Still, there is a simpler reason for the Comedian Harmonists' enduring appeal: leader Harry Frommermann and his pals made scintillating music. The six of them (two tenors, a tenorbuffo, a baritone, a bass and a pianist) blended swank and swing in the pop songs, folk tunes and classical airs they sang in German, Italian, French and English. In their clever charts and spritely renditions, "German humor" was for once not an oxymoron. Looking elegantly tuxedoed on their sold-out tours of Europe and the U.S., they spiked their tight harmonies with expert, deadpan vocal clowning; they could imitate band instruments and barnyard fowl. They sang a love song to a little green cactus. They had hits with skewered serenades to girls named Veronika, Isabella, Marie, Lisa and, most famously, Johanna.

    "Can you whistle, Johanna?" asks a beau showing off his belle in Kannst du pfeifen, Johanna? "Can you sing? Eat a peach? Gargle? Babble?" Johanna (a falsetto Frommermann) dutifully answers, with suitably rude sound effects, until the lover says sternly, "Can you be quiet, Johanna?" The comic portrait of a doomed courtship, in three minutes flat.

    This rendition is a highlight of The Harmonists, Joseph Vilsmaier's agreeably old-fashioned biopic, which smartly uses freshened versions of the original recordings to which the actors lip-synch. The film ladles on the bathos: as the group sings its farewell song, Harry's girlfriend Elsa dissolves into a puddle of conflicted emotion. If you remain dry-eyed, don't worry--this film does your crying for you. But it's brisk and entertaining. And yes, you will hum as you leave the 'plex.

    Band in Berlin, co-directed by Susan Feldman (who wrote the book) and Patricia Birch, wants you to sing and think as you leave the theater. A slide show with music, it mixes reminiscences of the last living Harmonist, Roman Cycowski (Herbert Rubens), with photos--flashed on screens behind the singers--of Hitler and some of the brilliant artists whose lives he disrupted. That the Nazis were bad is not news. What is news is the agility of the vocal ensemble Hudson Shad, which has long been singing the Comedian Harmonists' repertoire, and which brings the old tunes to witty life here.

    Band in Berlin is not so much a big musical as a concentrated concert. But it reminds theatergoers of a time when shows had bright tunes and high hopes--and when a group of six sang brilliantly in the face of political madness.