Learn about the real musicians that inspired 'Harmony' on Broadway

The Comedian Harmonists predated today's boy bands, and Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's show details how the German Jewish group rose and fell from fame.

Sarah Rebell
Sarah Rebell

Before One Direction, the Backstreet Boys, or even the Beatles, The Comedian Harmonists were the original boy band posed to take the world by storm.

The Comedian Harmonists were a German singing group made up of six young men whose fame and popularity were abruptly cut short by the rise of Nazism. Now, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman resurrect their long-forgotten story in the new Broadway musical Harmony.

From 1928-1934, the Comedian Harmonists toured internationally, made over 100 recordings, and performed in 21 movies. Robert Biberti, Erwin Bootz, Erich Collin, Josef Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman, and Ari Leschnikoff blended their voices together so well, you couldn’t tell them apart.

As in the Harmony musical, the group really did debut at Carnegie Hall in December 1933 as part of a New York tour. And even though Hitler rose to power in their absence, the harmonists indeed made the fateful decision to return to Berlin after their tour was over.

But who were the Comedian Harmonists? Discover the true stories of the musical’s main characters, including fun facts from the Harmony cast about their real-life counterparts.

Background on the Weimar Republic and German music

German cabarets and revues during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) often used musical satire as a way of commenting on politics. Two songs in Harmony, “We’re Goin’ Loco” and “Come to the Fatherland,” do just that. Of course, the cultural scene quickly changed once the Nazis rose to power. The Third Reich did not permit any political statements criticizing their regime.

As shown in Act 2 of Harmony, the Nazis recognized the importance of music as a propaganda tool and tried to use it to their advantage. However, it wasn’t the same without the use of Jewish musicians, and without the ability to poke fun at the regime.

The Harmonists sang all kinds of music, such as classical, jazz, and folk in numerous languages, including German, English, French, Spanish, and Russian. Despite having three Jewish members, they notably did not perform Jewish music. Nonetheless, the Harmonists described below fearlessly challenged the Nazis with the music they did perform, even in the face of personal danger.

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Cantor Joseph Roman Cycowski

Baritone, 1901-1998

Although his nickname is Rabbi in the show, Cycowski was not actually a rabbi. Born into a Chasidic Jewish family in Poland, he trained as a cantor before embarking on a career as an opera singer in Germany. However, he promised his father he’d be a cantor, so he continued his training and actually worked at a German synagogue for a year before joining the Comedian Harmonists in 1928.

When the Nazis forced the group to break up (and banned the performance of Jewish artists and of music written by Jews), the three Jewish Comedian Harmonists fled Germany. Once safe, they formed a new group called the Comedy Harmonists and traveled the world once more.

In 1941, Cycowski learned his father was murdered in the Lodz ghetto. He left the Comedy Harmonists and moved to California, where he finally fulfilled his promise to his father. He was a cantor at various California synagogues well into his 90s, with his wife Mary by his side the whole time.

In Harmony, an older Rabbi wrestles with survivor’s guilt as he tells the story of the Harmonists. The older Rabbi is a relatively new addition to the musical; the show was in development for over two decades before Manilow and Sussman added him in.

Fun facts: “He was a Jew that grew up in Poland during the times of the pogrom. He said there was an instance in which he was about to be beat up, and he started singing. Because of how beautiful his voice was, he was let go and wasn’t harmed. Singing with the Comedian Harmonists was the second time in his life where his voice saved him.” - Danny Kornfeld (Young Rabbi)

“My character lived until he was 97, and I met people who he’d taught their bar mitzvah material and were really fond of him. They knew him as this lovable guy who taught them Hebrew and how to do their portion of the haftarah.” - Chip Zien (Older Rabbi)

Ari "Lesh" Leschnikoff

Tenor, 1897-1987

Born Asparuch Leschnikow, Lesh came to Berlin at age 25 in 1922. He was indeed a “chain-smoking Bulgarian tenor,” as described by Rabbi in the show, and yet his smoking did not seem to affect his voice. Following Lesh's time with the Harmonists, Bulgaria managed to save most of its Jewish population – a rare European country to have done so. At the end of Harmony, Lesh even says, “We saved them, Rabbi! Every Jewish person in Bulgaria!”

Fun fact: “Ari Leschnikoff did not have a lot of money before he was part of the Comedian Harmonists, and when he rose to fame, the first thing he bought was a gold cigarette case.” - Steven Telsey (Lesh)

Erwin "Chopin" Bootz

Pianist/composer, 1907-1982

Lesh brought Bootz to the Comedian Harmonists. Along with Harry Frommerman, Bootz arranged the music for the sextet. After Cycowski, Frommerman, and Erich Collin fled Nazi Germany, Bootz and his two non-Jewish colleagues stayed in Germany and tried to create a new group, Das Meistersextett, but it didn’t have the same success.

In the musical, the non-Jewish Bootz marries Ruth, a Jewish communist who is passionate and outspoken about her beliefs. The real Bootz was married to a Jewish woman named Ursula from 1933-1938. He was married three times overall. After WWII, Bootz spent many years living in Canada (with his sister and her husband) but he ultimately returned to Berlin, where he died from a heart attack at the age of 75.

Fun fact: “When the Comedian Harmonists would get together and rehearse, they would have a fine that they would allot to each other for being late. It was hard times, they didn’t have a lot of money — everyone was very punctual. Chopin, however, came from a pretty affluent background and was regularly late.” - Blake Roman (Chopin)

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Harry Frommerman

Tenor, 1906-1975

As depicted in the musical, Frommerman came up with the idea for The Comedian Harmonists and put an ad for singers in the newspaper. He was inspired by an American jazz quintet called The Revelers and envisioned his group as a German version of the popular singers. (Before deciding on the name The Comedian Harmonists, the group considered calling themselves The German Revelers. They also almost went with The Melody Makers, as mentioned in the show.)

The son of a cantor, Frommerman originally studied to be an actor (despite his father’s protests). Along with Erwin Bootz, he created most of the arrangements for the group. Cycowski said he always considered Frommerman to be a musical genius in a 1995 interview.

Fun fact: “To bookend what Blake said, Harry (who also did not have any money), when he was late, took a taxi in his pajamas because that was less money than the fines that the Comedian Harmonists set.” - Zal Owen (Harry)

Erich Abraham Collin

Tenor, 1899-1961

Eric Collin was the third member of the group with Jewish heritage, though he had been baptized as Protestant.

His father was a pediatrician and, as in the show, Collin was in medical school when he joined the Comedian Harmonists. In real life, he didn’t audition for the group. He met Bootz through his school and was invited to join in 1929.

Collin’s family was extremely well connected; as shown in Harmony, he knew many famous figures like Albert Einstein. In fact, Einstein helped Collin get a job teaching German music at New York University when he moved to America during World War II.

The first of the Harmonists to pass away, Collin died in his early 60s during an appendectomy.

Fun fact: “Erich Collin, in real life, was smart as a whip and spoke several languages. He spoke German, obviously, but also spoke French, English, and a smattering of a few other things — Dutch, etc. I aspire to that.” - Eric Peters (Erich)

Robert "Bobby" Biberti

Bass, 1902-1985

A native Berliner, Biberti came from a musical family. His father, Georg Johann Bibert, was an Austrian opera singer, and his mother, Emilie, was a voice and piano teacher. Biberti responded to Frommerman’s newspaper ad and, like in Harmony, came to Frommerman’s apartment to audition. He was the only auditioner who passed muster — the other Harmonists all came to the group through mutual friends and by word of mouth.

In Harmony, Biberti urges the group to return to Berlin after their New York tour. He seems willing to appease – if not collaborate with - members of the Nazi party to save their careers and their skin, up to a certain point. However, Cycowski was adamant that Biberti was not a Nazi sympathizer. In fact, the two men remained good friends and stayed in touch until Biberti’s death in 1985.

Fun fact: “I actually went to Germany this summer, and I wandered into an antique music shop and asked if they had anything Comedian Harmonist-related. The owner said, ‘I actually knew two of the Comedian Harmonists.’ He said [Bobby] used to have wine in a restaurant around the corner every night for 20 years.” - Sean Bell (Bobby)

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Ruth

Ruth, Chopin's wife in Harmony, is an amalgamation of three different Jewish women. They include Bootz’s first wife, Ursula, and a Holocaust survivor named Ruth. In the show, Ruth is a Bolshevik who proudly wears red; in reality, Ursula was not actually a supporter of the Communist party.

Although all the Jewish Comedian Harmonists survived, Ruth’s fate is much more typical for a German Jew. Toward the end of the show, Ruth is arrested by Nazis when she tries to leave Germany, and the group never finds her. However, Bootz’s wife, Ursula, managed to survive and escaped to the United States.

Fun fact: “I tracked down [Ursula’s] daughter and interviewed her all about her mother. She sent me family photos; I learned all about her journey. She’s different than Ruth because she was not political, and Ruth was very political.” - Julie Benko (Ruth)

Mary Panzram

1907-2006

Mary (or Maria) Panzram, Cycowski’s wife, first met him in Cologne in 1929. As in the musical, she converted to Judaism to marry him – despite the danger of being a Jewish woman in Germany in 1933. The duet she sings with Ruth, “Where You Go,” is based on an excerpt from the Book of Ruth, read every year on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. In the story, a non-Jewish woman tells her Jewish mother-in-law she will stand by her, just as Mary promises to stand by her Jewish husband and friends as the Nazis take power.

Mary kept her word; she and Cycowski remained married for over 60 years until his death in the late 1990s. He may have been the lone survivor among the Comedian Harmonists, but she was the true survivor who outlived them all.

Fun fact: “[Mary and Rabbi] did end up in California together and lived out their days. That’s how Barry Manilow met the real Rabbi and the real Mary. There’s a video of the two of them, Rabbi and Mary, in their old age playing cards together.” - Sierra Boggess (Mary)

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Other historical figures in Harmony

The Comedian Harmonists and their love interests are not the only real people in the musical. The most significant supporting character is Albert Einstein, who meets the Comedian Harmonists at Carnegie Hall when they are deciding whether to return to Berlin. Unlike the singers, he remained in the U.S. In the musical, Einstein recognizes the threat posed by the Nazis before anyone else: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing,” Einstein tells the Harmonists when they express disbelief at how dire things are in Germany.

Other historical figures in Harmony include performer Josephine Baker and composer/conductor Richard Strauss. Strauss gives the Harmonists their big break, and he is later appointed President of the Reichsministry of Music. Strauss tries to use his position to protect Jewish musicians like Rabbi, Harry, and Erich.

Baker leads the Harmonists in an exuberant Act II opener where they all perform in the 1934 Ziegfeld Follies. (Though she performed in the Follies in real life, it was in 1936 and not with the Harmonists.) A member of the French resistance and a civil rights advocate, Baker was an activist and an artist.

Fun fact: “[Josephine Baker] was in espionage in World War II, which I love. She’s a superstar, but she was also a humanitarian.” - Allison Semmes (Josephine Baker)

Photo credit: Harmony on Broadway. (Photos by Julieta Cervantes and Adam Riemer)
Historical image credit: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Joseph Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman, and Ari Leschnikoff. (Photo courtesy of production)

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