In 1991, lyricist and librettist Bruce Sussman happened upon a New York Times review of the German documentary “The Comedian Harmonists.” “It had a very compelling photo of six young men in white tie and tails, their hair Brilliantined. It was clearly 1920s, 1930s,” Sussman told Broadway News. “I read this review and it was about a [singing] group I’d never heard of and a story I never heard of, and it was compelling. So I decided to go down [to the Public Theater] there and see it.”
After the three-and-a-half-hour film, Sussman ran to a payphone on Lafayette Street to call his longtime writing partner, Barry Manilow. For 51 years, Sussman and Manilow have been collaborating. They’ve written hundreds of songs, best known in the mainstream music realm.
“When we met, we planned on writing shows,” Manilow explained. “And as I’m very fond of saying, [the 1974 hit song] ‘Mandy’ screwed it all up. He had to go out there and sell 80 million records.” Manilow joked, “I mean, how dare he?”
But in 1991, after a couple decades in the music biz, Sussman had found a way back to writing for theater. The story of the German vocal group, known as the Comedian Harmonists, blew him away. The Comedian Harmonists were an internationally renowned vocal sextet; they made dozens of records and films, traveled the world, played Carnegie Hall, sang on NBC radio and more. “I didn’t know any of this, and I didn’t know how I couldn’t know any of this,” he said.