In 1934, one of Europe's most popular musical acts, the Comedian Harmonists performed for 6,000 members of Hitler's two murder gangs, the SS and the SA. They greeted their audience with the Nazi salute.
Three of the group's members were Jewish. Within a few years, they were banned and forced into exile. Members of their families died in the Holocaust.
Their story is a riveting fable for the 20th century. The way "Band in Berlin" approaches that story is, alas, just a parable for today's Broadway. "Band in Berlin" is a good show. The singing by the five men who play the Comedian Harmonists is often scintillating.
The staging is deft. The cheery performances of songs like "Uncle Bumba from Columba Dances the Rhumba" and "Tea for Two" are set against projected images of German paintings, newsreels and photographs.
These images provide a chilling commentary on the group's rise and fall. Black and white film based on an interview with the group's last survivor, Roman Cycowski, fills in the details.
With all of this going on, the show is intriguing, entertaining and thought-provoking. But it should be so much more.
What it should be is a great musical. Thirty years ago, the combination of popular songs and political tragedy would have inspired a work of real ambition.
We know this because the same theme singing and dancing on the edge of the Nazi abyss did inspire a great musical, "Cabaret." To watch "Band in Berlin" with "Cabaret" in mind is to get a graphic lesson in the terrible lack of courage that besets Broadway now.
"Band in Berlin" is small and safe, not just artistically, but morally. The fanciest footwork on view is not in the choreography. It's the side-step away from the big questions that the story poses.
At one level, the tale of the Comedian Harmonists is a familiar story of Nazi cruelty. It's hardly news to anyone that Hitler was a monster.
The really fresh, powerful story is about something else: the way people colluded in their own destruction. The tragedy of the group was the delusion that, if they played along with the Nazis and avoided politics, they would be okay.
Writer and director Susan Feldman doesn't ignore this question. But she doesn't explore it either.
The essential problem is that the story is told entirely from the point of view of the survivor Cycowski, to whom the show is dedicated. Because he's the hero, we never get to grips with the story of a Jew singing sweet harmonies while Hitler is preparing the Final Solution.
And that, surely, is where the drama ought to lie. We want to know what these guys thought was going to happen. What did other Jews think of them singing for the SS? What makes all of us so blind to what is going on around us?
"Band in Berlin" cops out by giving us a straight, documentary account of what happened. It forgets that the point of theater is to ask why it happened. Because it doesn't try to find a meaning, the show avoids the issue almost as blindly as the Comedian Harmonists did.
"Band in Berlin," at the Helen Hayes, has a moving and engaging story to tell. The Comedian Harmonists were a cheerful quintet of singers, plus a pianist, who, from their formation in Berlin in 1927 until their breakup in 1935, enjoyed international success with a light, feel-good repertoire ranging from Cole Porter to Rossini. The rise of the Nazis brought trouble to the group. Three of its members were Jewish, and in 1935 the government demanded their exclusion from the quintet, which then split apart.
The Comedian Harmonists have not wanted for attention in recent times. In addition to a three-hour documentary made in the 1970s, there is a recent fiction film, "The Harmonists," and a Barry Manilow musical, "Harmony." The current telling of the story is written by Susan Feldman and staged and choreographed by Patricia Birch; both Birch and Feldman direct. It amounts to a 90-minute concert with didactic overlays and interjections. A real-life sestet (five singers and a pianist) called the Hudson Shad sing some 21 songs in the bouncy, often-comic style of what used to be called barbershop quartets. Led by tall, genial bass Wilbur Pauley in the role of Robert Biberti, the men sing in German, French and English. They begin with "Whispering" and follow up with the likes of "My Little Green Cactus" (with appropriately cute cacti) and "Stormy Weather" (with umbrellas and French lyrics). There's lots of "bong, bong, bong" on rising notes. They do Ellington's "Creole Love Call" while imitating trumpet noises with their hands; for "Happy Days Are Here Again" the group pretends to be on a picnic.
The six musicians - Pauley; Mark Bleeke; Timothy Leigh Evans; Hugo Munday; Peter Becker; Robert Wolinsky - catch the sounds and the moves of the 1930s quite nicely; they even seem to have the deeply lined faces of Middle Europe.
The Comedian Harmonists were overshadowed almost from the start by the Nazi menace. But this production chooses a very heavy-handed way to evoke the political context. There are constant rear-projections illustrating both Nazis and their victims; this material mingles both the actual (Hitler's speeches; modernist paintings) and the faux (a film of a country jaunt; collages that ape Grosz). The mixture is irritating and merely draws attention to itself. Then there is a faux-documentary film popping up at frequent intervals in which Herbert Rubens plays Roman Cycowski, the group's last surviving member, who died in Palm Springs last September at the age of 97. The "film," in which Rubens-Cycowski offers rueful reflections on the group's sad fate, is a clever stunt but it's too much.
The whole production is unwilling to let us apprehend the tragic ironies here for ourselves. A group consisting of singers of mixed religions was offering Germany a taste of utopia - of sweetness and humor and bubbly cooperation. They were incarnating a vision of harmony and charm that Germany violently rejected. We could have gotten this for ourselves without the bludgeoning overkill that is insisted on here. There's even a touch of smug ex-post-facto criticism in these texts as when Rubens says that Brecht and Heinrich Mann and Grosz were social critics while we were just "performers." Well, maybe you should have been social critics, is the hint. So too, when "Night and Day" is backgrounded by shots of Nazis and Nazi atrocities, the implication is, "how frivolous of Cole Porter and of the Comedian Harmonists to fiddle while Berlin burned."
The group's final concert in Germany was a cavorting, demeaning performance at an SS concert. The closing number abroad - "The Last Roundup" - finds the group in cowboy togs against a Western backdrop. By their own artistry these skilled musicians evoke all the heart-wrenching sadness - all the lost and trampled cheer and brotherhood - of the situation. Would that this bullying production had more often let the music speak for itself.
Think of ''Beatlemania'' as performed by six lesser Victor Borges, and you have some idea of the theatrical impact of ''Band in Berlin,'' the engagingly sung, dramatically inert new musical play that opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
''Band in Berlin'' is not so much a play as a kind of docu-cabaret. Through slide projections, re-enactments of newsreel clips and the jukebox-style performances of a stream of Teutonic folk songs and American pop standards, the show recounts the rise and fall of the Comedian Harmonists, the renowned German singing group forced by the Nazis to disband because three of its members were Jewish.
The story of a troupe of entertainers caught in the path of the Nazi campaign of anti-Semitic propaganda and terror certainly has the makings of compelling theater. (The singer Barry Manilow has written his own musical, ''Harmony,'' based on the group's travails, and a new movie about it, ''The Harmonists,'' opens on Friday.) But as directed by Susan Feldman and Patricia Birch, ''Band in Berlin'' reduces the value of this material to the level of idle curiosity. And I do mean idle. Midway through a musically monotonous, 90-minute program, during which 22 numbers are performed in German and English by five singers and a pianist, you may begin to feel like a heavy-lidded motorist, struggling against the effects of highway hypnosis.
The show is, unintentionally, the lullaby of Broadway.
Ms. Feldman, artistic director of the St. Ann Center for Restoration and the Arts in Brooklyn Heights, has been quoted in interviews as expressing doubt as to whether ''Band in Berlin'' belongs on Broadway. Her skepticism is well founded. The production cries out for a more intimate environment. That's because the scope of the piece is so limited; it's rarely anything more than a skillful impressionists' act. Hopscotching from one precious number to the next -- the singers became famous for their meticulous harmonies, their uncanny ability to mimic musical instruments and their gentle clowning -- the show steadfastly refuses to engage some of the most fascinating issues it raises: Who exactly were these performers? How did they feel when the Nazis drove a wedge among them? And what impact did that have on their relationships and the rest of their lives?
Casting singers rather than actors probably precluded this type of exploration. To a large degree the show's creators rely on a seventh character, an older version of one of the Harmonists, played by Herbert Rubens, to supply emotional context. Portraying the group member Roman Cycowski, Mr. Rubens appears in a black-and-white mock documentary that is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage and relates in broad outline the group's history.
The attempt is to provide the story with a touchstone, but it has the opposite effect; the film makes the performers onstage seem duller and all the more remote. The narration rarely pierces the play's placid surface. (''It was wonderful fun, and we thought nothing could happen to us because we were famous'' is about as candid and probing as the commentary gets.) In some instances the phony documentary only succeeds in wasting time, as when it depicts the group members on tour, clutching suitcases and dashing this way and that.
At other times Mr. Rubens's disembodied voice is broadcast in the theater, and this, too, can be a clunky device. For example, as he describes each of the group members, a spotlight is trained on that vocalist, who is forced to stand there like a statue, smiling and nodding in strained silence. The performers fare no better in a scene that depicts an incident in Stuttgart, where a Nazi effort to shut the group down is thwarted by their devoted fans; it fails to impart any sense of the Harmonists' turmoil.
One of the points of ''Band in Berlin'' may be that the Comedian Harmonists were indeed at some remove from reality through much of the Nazi era, oblivious, like much of the German public that revered them, to the magnitude of the threat they faced. (It may also be intentional that it's almost impossible to remember which men onstage are supposed to be Jewish.) But turning them all into singing shadows is not a particularly effective way of unlocking an audience's empathy, except perhaps for those who have warm memories of the group or a special admiration for their style of singing.
On this last score, at least, the creators of ''Band in Berlin'' have done their homework. The five vocalists, played by Mark Bleeke, Timothy Leigh Evans, Hugo Munday, Peter Becker and Wilbur Pauley, and the pianist, Robert Wolinsky (all members of an actual musical group, Hudson Shad), are adroit with the Harmonists' material. In their top hats, tails and shimmering harmonies, they have no trouble convincing us they are the real thing.
The performers may not be given a chance to emote, but they are certainly unassailable as trombones and violins. In the evening's most pleasing number, the overture to ''The Barber of Seville'' is recreated entirely through impersonations of musical instruments.
Much of the remainder of the program puts you in mind of that alpine talent show in ''The Sound of Music'': the Comedian Harmonists might have been the group that went on just before the Trapp family. Their repertory ranges from covers of hits like Duke Ellington's ''It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing'' to saccharine renditions of novelty songs like ''Mein Kleine Gruner Kaktus'' (''My Little Green Cactus''), for which the singers slip on green oven mitts with little yellow protruding spines.
To appreciate the Comedian Harmonists' story, you have to feel something for their unique predicament, otherwise they're just Deutsche Beach Boys. Ms. Birch, the Broadway choreographer, and Ms. Feldman, who wrote the piece, provide the bass notes and the footnotes. But they never strike more resonant human chords.
Plenty of lovely music -- ineffably sweet and sad and evocative of a lost era -- runs through "Band in Berlin," an unlikely new entry on Broadway that mixes the pleasures of a novel cabaret act with the drearier stuff of a high-school history lecture, replete with slightly cheesy visual aids. Despite the handsome harmonizing by five supremely talented vocalists, "Band in Berlin" is not really a musical. Unfortunately, it's not really a play either, and the show is probably not distinguished enough as a unique theatrical experience to endear itself for long to demanding Broadway audiences.
The show is a tribute of sorts to the musical legacy of a German singing group called the Comedian Harmonists. The band, which rose to worldwide fame in the '20s before being forced to disband by the Nazis in 1934, is enjoying something of a vogue right now. "The Harmonists," a German movie tracing their rise and fall, will be released Friday, and Barry Manilow -- of all people, one feels impelled to add -- has already premiered his own more traditional musical-theater take on the troupe. His show, "Harmony," bowed to mixed reviews at the La Jolla Playhouse last year and is talked about for Broadway next season.
"Band in Berlin" stars the vocal group Hudson Shad, a sextet modeled on the Harmonists (five male vocalists and a pianist) that specializes in singing their distinctive repertoire. The lion's share of the show -- and all of its entertainment value -- derives from their note-perfect re-creations of the Comedian Harmonists' signature vocal arrangements. They sing everything from unknown novelty numbers, such as "Dearest Isabella From Castille" (with music by Harmonists pianist Erwin Bootz), to pop standards of the period, including a haunting "Night and Day" and a winsome, wordless take on Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Song." Perhaps most delightful of all is an a cappella vocal rendition of the overture from "The Barber of Seville," with the singers impersonating various instruments with uncanny verisimilitude and puckish delight.
Between the almost two dozen musical numbers, we are treated to a sketchy voiceover narrative describing the group's humble beginnings, meteoric rise to fame and eventual disbanding when Hitler's increasingly repressive cultural policies outlawed the group for their mixed racial makeup (half of the members were Jewish, by Hitler's definition).
But the manner in which this material is delivered is theatrically lifeless: a movie screen descends every few minutes, on which an actor playing the group's last living member recites the details to an unknown interviewer in a sort of fake home movie. (The text presumably comes from real interviews with Harmonist Roman Cycowski, who died in November.) The artificial nature of this documentary-style presentation robs it of even such interest as it might have had -- would millions have watched an actress playing Monica Lewinsky giggling away to Barbara Walters? But even if the film had featured the actual man, it's a cumbersome device on a stage.
Also displayed on the central screen and two side screens are film and slide shows that include montages depicting Hitler's rise and a visual history of art and artists banned by the Nazis. This history is well-trodden ground, of course, and isn't presented here in an aesthetically engaging manner. All too often it's like watching a PBS documentary with the wrong soundtrack.
Only occasionally do the visual elements and the vocalizing of the singers' combine in illuminating ways, most arrestingly when images depicting the spreading power of Hitler give chilling new meaning to the lyrics of "Night and Day": "Like the beat, beat, beat of a tom tom..."
And sometimes they combine in ways that leave us wondering what attitude we're supposed to take toward the Harmonists, who apparently kept pursuing their career and even singing for SS stormtroopers as Hitler's merciless policies were wreaking havoc on Germany's Jews. ("Hitler spoiled everything," gripes the narrator -- a rather startling understatement.)
The show's creators -- writer, co-director and conceiver Susan Feldman, co-director, co-conceiver and choreographer Patricia Birch and co-conceiver and music director Wilbur Pauley (got that straight?) -- make some strange judgment calls. It's in questionable taste to show disturbing films of Jews being assaulted and follow it minutes later with the performance of a cutesy cowboy tune called "The Last Roundup."
The singers of Hudson Shad are a marvelously talented bunch who perform with commanding style and wit, and the smooth, syncopated vocal arrangements of the Harmonists are pieces of music that indeed deserve to live on. But no amount of sweet singing can disguise the fact that "Band in Berlin" is a distinctly awkward stage vehicle.