The Comedian Harmonists: The Film, the Musical, the Rest ...

The Musical

I first learned of The Comedian Harmonists back in about 1984 and promptly turned on as many friends as I could.  Awareness of the group in the United States remained at more or less the same level of relative obscurity for many years thereafter.  In recent years the group has achieved a somewhat higher profile.  The compelling story of this group caught the attention of folks who had the inclination, the funds, and the ability to thrust them into the public consciousness.  Feast your eyes on this press release:

Is Barry Manilow leaving the Copacabana behind for a chance to be on Broadway?  That's what it looks like because Manilow has written the music for a new stage musical called "Harmony" that premiered in San Diego at the La Jolla Playhouse in October, 1997.

The musical is inspired by the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, six street musicians who rose to fame in 1920s Germany only to suffer hassles from the Nazis because half of the group's members were Jewish.  If Harmony is successful during its run in San Diego, insiders predict the show might debut on Broadway later.

Honestly, I haven't followed the progress of the musical and whether or not it is still playing or headed for the big time.

The Film

A feature film entitled "Comedian Harmonists," a German/Austrian co-production directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, had a limited opening on October 25, 1997, and opened throughout Germany and Austria on Christmas Day of that same year.  The film covers the group's career from 1927 through 1935 and includes the legendary New York concert on board the "Saratoga" in June 1934, an event which also featured the Boswell Sisters.  The cast of the 126-minute film includes quite well known German actors.  Further details may be found at the (German language) "Senator-Film" web site, which includes photos, interviews, and, even, video clips.  It's well worth a visit.

Apparently, the film was very well received in Germany, having passed the one million viewer mark soon after its release.  It's even bringing out folks that haven't been to the cinema in years.  The actors and director even made a promotional tour, visiting more than 40 cinemas in 3 weeks, touring in a bus painted with faces of the actors in the colors of the movie poster.

I am told [Thanks, Theo] that the producers originally planned to film a duplicate version with the actors delivering the lines in English.  It was decided not to do this, upon failure to raise the required 1.5 million Deutschmarks, a relatively small sum.

The original version with subtitles was released in the United States early in 1999.  It reached my neighborhood multiplex in June of that year and (although I am too close to the subject to be objective) I thought it was absolutely delightful.  You can find articles and reviews of the film by using the search engine of your choice.

The Documentary

A definitive documentary, "Die Comedian Harmonists - Sechs Lebensläufe" ("The Comedian Harmonists - Six Personal Records" -- also known as "The Rise and Fall of the Comedian Harmonists") was produced by Eberhard Fechner and broadcast on German television in two parts on December 18 and 20, 1976.  Each part is about 1:30 in length and includes short films, photos, and songs, as well as interviews with Robert Biberti, Ari Leschnikoff, Erwin Bootz, Roman and Mary Cycowski and relatives of Harry Frommermann and Erich Collin conducted in 1975/76.  This documentary has been shown in Los Angeles, courtesy of the Goethe Institut, as recently as 1986.

Some sources report an earlier documentary, a German-language film about The Comedian Harmonists made in the early 1960's for Norddeutscher Rundfunk and said to have been shown in Great Britain as recently as June 1992.  Other research disputes the existence of any such film.

Epilogue and The Comedian Harmonists Today

In the aftermath of the forced breakup of the Comedian Harmonists, the members re-formed themselves into two successors of the original group.  Thereafter, new members came and went, some eventually settling in the United States.  The full details of all this are beyond the scope and purpose of this page.  But, for those who are interested, I invite you to proceed to an epilogue page which sets forth the salient details relating to the Comedian Harmonists' later career, together with fascinating pictures relating thereto.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the original members became a prominent man in Southern California where he lived to a ripe old age.

The Tradition Carried Forward

Perhaps you've heard of the group "Hudson Shad."  I don't have any of their records, but I did hear a feature about them on National Public Radio.  Hudson Shad is a sort of Comedian Harmonists tribute group that has enjoyed a measure of success, even performing a series of concerts in Germany.  It is worth repeating the review of a new CD "Hudson Shad: Hooked Again!" found at the aforementioned "Primarily A Capella" site.

We're happy to say this New York reincarnation of The Comedian Harmonists is back with another great close harmony album!  As with their debut ["Spawn song"], Hudson Shad's lush vocal harmony is largely piano accompanied, with the exception of a lovely a cappella rendition of the Barbershop classic "I Had A Dream" (with a tasteful, new arrangement).  In keeping with their tradition the group mixes German with English, on "Stormy Weather," "Guitarren Spielt Auf" (both languages) and others.  Finally, their judicious (and at times humorous) use of voicetruments carries on the Comedian Harmonists' ground breaking work.  Well done!

Go back to the European Jazz and Close Harmony Vocal Groups page.

This page created and maintained by Jim Lowe
First appearance: July 12, 1997
Last updated: May 18, 2002

© 1998 and 1999 by James R. Lowe, who reserves all rights to the content of this page not successfully claimed by others.