Comedian Harmonists

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Comedian Harmonists (from left: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommermann, Asparuh "Ari" Leschnikoff) Ch1930.jpg
Comedian Harmonists (from left: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommermann, Asparuh "Ari" Leschnikoff)

The Comedian Harmonists were an internationally famous, all-male German close harmony ensemble that performed between 1928 and 1934 as one of the most successful musical groups in Europe before World War II. The group consisted of Harry Frommermann  [ de ] (tenor buffo), Asparuh "Ari" Leschnikoff  [ de ] (first tenor), Erich A. Collin (second tenor), Roman Cycowski  [ de ] (baritone), Robert Biberti  [ de ] (bass), and Erwin Bootz  [ de ] (pianist).


The hallmark of the Comedian Harmonists was its members' ability to blend their voices together so that the individual singers could appear and disappear back into the vocal texture. Its repertoire was wide, ranging from the folk and classical songs arranged by Frommermann to appealing and witty popular songs of the day by writers such as Peter Igelhoff, Werner R. Heymann and Paul Abraham.


Comedian Harmonists in Berlin BASA-1868K-1-44-1-Comedian Harmonists, Berlin, 01.01.1928.jpg
Comedian Harmonists in Berlin

In 1927, unemployed actor Harry Frommermann was inspired by The Revelers, a jazz-influenced popular vocal group from the United States, to create a German group of the same format. According to Douglas Friedman's 2010 book The Comedian Harmonists, in August 1929 both groups appeared on the same bill at the Scala in Berlin and became good friends. Frommermann held auditions in his flat on Stubenrauchstraße 47 in Berlin-Friedenau, and, once the group was assembled, it quickly began rehearsals. After some initial failures, the Harmonists soon found success, becoming popular throughout Europe, visiting the United States, and appearing in 21 films. [1]

The members of the group were:

Ari Leschnikoff(1897–1978)first tenor
Erich A. Collin(1899–1961)second tenor
Harry Frommermann(1906–1975) tenor buffo
Roman Cycowski(1901–1998) baritone
Robert Biberti(1902–1985) bass
Erwin Bootz(1907–1982) pianist

The group's success continued into the early 1930s, but eventually ran into trouble with the Nazi regime: three of the group members – Frommermann, Collin, and Cycowski – were either Jewish or of Jewish descent, and Bootz had married a Jewish woman. The Nazis progressively made the group's professional life more difficult, initially banning pieces by Jewish composers, and finally prohibiting them from performing in public. The group's last concert in Germany was in Hanover on March 25, 1934, after which they sailed to the United States on SS Europa and gave several concerts. Fearing internment if they stayed abroad, however, they eventually returned home amid bitter internal disputes.

BASA-1868K-1-44-3-Comedian Harmonists, Leipzig.jpg

Frommermann, Cycowski, and Collin subsequently fled Germany and formed a new group in Vienna, which performed under the names "Comedian Harmonists" and "Comedy Harmonists" with a new pianist, bass, and high tenor. The remaining members in Germany likewise replaced their counterparts in a successor group named "Das Meistersextett" (as the authorities forbade an English-language name). Neither group was able to achieve the original success of the Comedian Harmonists, with the German group stifled by political in-fighting and heavy censorship, as well as the war draft (call-up). The emigrant group toured extensively all across Europe (excluding Germany and, from 1938 on, Austria), but also in the Soviet Union, South Africa, South America, and Australia where they were particularly successful and considered settling down since the Australian government had offered them citizenship. However, after a North American concert tour in 1940, they were unable to return to Australia. Their last concert was in Richmond, on May 1, 1940. After that, they were unable to find work in America due to hostility toward German entertainers, and the group split up.

The Bulgarian Asparuh Leschnikoff (also spelt Leshnikov) returned to his fatherland in 1938 and started a successful career. By 1941, both groups had broken up. Although all members survived the war, they never re-formed after the war.

Erich Collin created a new group in the late 1940s, consisting of himself (now as a baritone), Jack Cathcart (Piano), Fred Bixler (First Tenor), Murray Pollack (Second Tenor), Nicolai Shutorev (Buffo) and Arthur Atkins (Bass). When Shutorev died unexpectedly while the group was on tour in Norway in September 1948, [2] Erich Collin asked Harry Frommermann to jump in as a replacement, and so two of the original Comedian Harmonists were reunited on stage. They continued the tour and recorded six songs for the label "Le Chant du Monde" in Basel in 1949. Shortly afterwards the group disbanded, allegedly due to a lack of discipline among the American members.

The group remained largely forgotten until filmmaker Eberhard Fechner  [ de ] created a four-hour black-and-white television documentary, in which he interviewed the surviving members in 1975, who were scattered throughout the world. The documentary aired over two nights in German in 1977 and caused a resurgence of interest in the music of the Comedian Harmonists, with their records being released on vinyl. In 1979 Erwin Bootz and Robert Biberti received the certificate and the trophy of the Deutscher Schallplattenpreis in the category Historic Recordings/Entertainment for the double-LP, Die Comedian Harmonists Story, Odeon 1 C 148-32 974 M .

They won recognition from the musical entertainment industry in 1998 when they won an honorary award of the Echo Music Prize from the Deutsche Phono-Akademie  [ de ].

Dramatic representations

They were the subject of the 1997 German movie Comedian Harmonists , released in the United States as The Harmonists. [3] In the film, actors lip synched to the musical performances of the group's original recordings.

The 1997 film directly led to a musical play about the group, Veronika, der Lenz ist da – Die Comedian Harmonists, which opened at the Komödie in Berlin in December 1997. When this production closed, the actors who had played the original sextet formed a new group called the Berlin Comedian Harmonists, which recreates the Comedian Harmonists' repertoire.

Harmony: A New Musical about the Comedian Harmonists, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in the fall of 1997, and played at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from September 6, 2013, to October 6, then moved in early 2014 to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. [4] [5] The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene in New York City mounted Harmony during March to May 2022, directed by Warren Carlyle. [6] [7] In April 2023 it was announced that the show would celebrate its Broadway opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on November 13 of that same year. [8]

Selected filmography


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  1. Comedian Harmonists at IMDb [ better source needed ]
  2. "Nicholas George Shutorev (1914–1948)". FamilySearch. Retrieved 2020-12-04.
  3. Comedian Harmonists (1997) at IMDb
  4. "Barry Manilow's Harmony and Maurice Hines' Tappin' Thru Life Will Be Part of 2013–14 Alliance Season in Atlanta" Archived 2013-06-02 at the Wayback Machine , Michael Gioia, March 14, 2013, Playbill
  5. Alliance Theatre program book September 2013
  6. "Harmony", production details
  7. "Barry Manilow’s Harmony Musical Will Finally Get Its First NYC Run in Spring 2022" by Chris Willman, Variety , 23 August 2021
  8. "Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony Sets Broadway Bow" by Logan Culwell-Block, Variety , 28 April 2023

Further reading