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Episode 5: Why Robert Biberti convinced the Comedian Harmonists to return to a dangerous Germany

Learn about the bass singer of the group in the fifth episode of the podcast “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists? The True Story Behind Broadway’s ‘Harmony’” — produced by Broadway News and “Harmony.”

The Comedian Harmonists arrived on board the SS Europa on May 14. (L-R) Erich Collin, Ari Leschnikoff, Harry Frommermann, Josef Roman Cycowski, Erwin Bootz and Robert Biberti (Credit: Bettman/Getty Images)

Both in the musical “Harmony” and in real life, the pivotal decision for the Comedian Harmonists to return to Germany after visiting the United States in 1934 came down to Robert Biberti.

Biberti was the group’s bass singer. He was actually the first person to audition and be accepted into the then-named Melody Makers when founder Harry Frommermann was on his quest to find singers. From the time Biberti joined the ensemble, he not only wanted to be a part of the group, he wanted to lead it. 

The basso, as he was known, brought in Ari Leschnikoff — the high tenor that contributed greatly to the group’s distinct sound and beauty. Later, Biberti also collaborated with Erich Collin to manage concert bookings and contracts. “He really saw himself as a leader. He wanted to be in charge of the group,” said Sean Bell, who played Biberti in “Harmony.” But this often led to conflict. As Bell said of his alter ego, “He didn’t have a lot of respect for Harry.”

The greatest conflict arose when the Comedian Harmonists visited New York in the summer of 1934. Political tensions had been rising in Germany. It was becoming less safe for Jews. The group knew that two of its members, Frommermann and Josef Roman Cycowski, were Jewish, and one (Erwin Bootz) was married to a Jew, Ursula Elkan. (They did not realize at the time that Erich Collin, who had been baptized as an infant, would also be ruled Jewish by the Nuremburg Laws.) 

As is depicted in “Harmony,” the group considered staying in America. But Biberti urged the group to return to Germany. “That trip to America in 1934, that was something like a test [of] how [they] could live abroad,” podcast resident historian Jan Grübler explained. “‘Could we earn money? Could we be successful?’ Biberti claimed, ‘No, we have been denied by the press and we can't exist in America. There are too many artists.’ That was, were, his arguments.”“On the other hand, we know that he had his old mother in Berlin and had his big flat and didn’t want to leave Germany,” Grübler continued. “So he made the decision that he absolutely wanted to go back.”

Biberti had grown up in Germany after the First World War, where Germans were not well-liked by the global community — particularly Americans. He feared they wouldn’t be able to make a living there. He remembered all too well his poor upbringing. Plus, his allegiance was to his mother. So the group made the fateful decision to return to Europe.

The unrest in Germany did not blow over. All of the Jewish Comedian Harmonists escaped Germany before any were sent to a ghetto or concentration camp. Thankfully, no one died because of Biberti’s persuasiveness. But alas, the Comedian Harmonists, as they had been known, were no more. 

Still, Biberti was an ardent record-keeper and preserved much of the group’s history. “Robert Biberti kept every sheet of paper, every bill — everything,” Grübler, who has seen the archives, said. “He got concert programs and scores and all that’s concerning to the groups he was a member of, and that was very exciting. I used almost four weeks to see all the stuff.”

In the fifth episode of “Who Were the Comedian Harmonists? The True Story Behind Broadway’s ‘Harmony,’” interviews with Grübler, Bell and more pull back the details on Biberti’s life. What was the source of his need for leadership? What was he like as a performer? What about his personal life? Discover all the details from his papers and more: 

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.

Listen to “Episode 4: Josef Roman Cycowski, the peacemaker” here.