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Episode 4: After the Comedian Harmonists, this singer would become a beloved cantor in America

Listen to the full story of Roman Cycowski in the fourth episode of the podcast “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists? The True Story Behind Broadway’s ‘Harmony’” — produced by Broadway News and “Harmony.”

Chip Zien as “Rabbi,” a.k.a. Roman Cycowski, in Broadway’s “Harmony,” 2023 (Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

Singing saved Roman Cycowski’s life — more than once. “He grew up in Lodz, Poland,” actor Danny Kornfeld, who portrayed Cycowski in Broadway’s “Harmony,” explained. “There’s this story of him, when he was back in Poland, and he was about to be beaten up by a group of boys, and he started singing. And because of how good he was, they let him go. That was the first time that singing saved him.”

When he was approximately 19 years old, Cycowski emigrated to Germany in pursuit of a career as an opera singer; he was encouraged by his father, who was a cantor in Poland. In Berlin, Cycowski (who is known as “Rabbi” in “Harmony”) eventually became the baritone of the Comedian Harmonists. Cycowski stood out in voice (indeed, he had the rich sound of a trained opera singer) and in personality.

“‘Rabbi’ was known to be the one who was kind of the mediator, both in our story and in history,” Kornfeld said.

Bruce Sussman, who wrote the book and lyrics to “Harmony,” discovered this firsthand after speaking to Cycowski over the phone in the 1990s. “He talked about how he tried to make peace over and over again between Harry [Frommerman] and Bobby [Biberti],” Sussman recalled. “That gave me a handle into Roman’s character, that he was a peacemaker.”

Cycowski may have had some practice with peacemaking during his childhood. He had eight siblings. Though he lived apart from them for much of his life, his love for his family never dimmed. In fact, it was news about his father that set Cycowski on a new path.

After fleeing Germany, Cycowski — along with Frommerman and Erich Collin — created a new version of the Comedian Harmonists called the Comedy Harmonists. Cycowski was performing in the U.S. with this reconstituted group when he received news about the passing of his father.

As Cycowski told documentarian Eberhardt Fechner: “When I got the letter, I said to my colleagues, I promised my father that I would be a cantor. I said to Frommerman, I’ll give you three months to find a replacement for me. I immediately took up a post as a cantor in Los Angeles. I hadn’t set foot in a synagogue for 20 years, but immediately felt at home again.”

Cycowski may have never been a rabbi — that was a nickname for the stage character — but he did become a cantor, and a renowned one at that. When Cycowski passed away at the age of 97, he was still singing and working as a cantor. 

In the fourth episode of “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists? The True Story Behind Broadway’s ‘Harmony,’” interviews with the podcasts’s resident historian Jan Grübler plus Sussman, Kornfeld, actor Chip Zien and more reveal the full life story of Cycowski. From his days with the Comedian Harmonists to his lifelong love affair with Mary Panzram to his legacy in America, understand the true details of the story that inspired the story of “Harmony.”

Want to know the specifics of the fortune and fate of the group and its members? Listen to the full debut episode of “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists? The True Story Behind Broadway’s ‘Harmony’” with the player above or download and subscribe to the podcast on platforms including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. New episodes of “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists?” (produced by Broadway News and “Harmony” A New Musical and edited by Daniel Piñeiro) are released on Wednesdays.

Listen to the podcast’s trailer here.

Listen to “Episode 1: The Comedian Harmonists” here.

Listen to “Episode 2: Harry Frommermann, the founder” here.

Listen to “Episode 3: Erich Collin, the intellectual” here.