Diversion 2.0

No one ever went broke, they say, underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But even underestimating is more complicated now than it used to be: The simple public is very knowing and doesn't like to be told how simple it is; it likes to have its smartness praised while you're hitting it over the head with the simplicities it really craves. Try a subtlety— or the kind of direct simplicity that appeals to purer hearts and more genuinely jaded palates— at your own risk. This situation makes the act of creating popular entertainment an unnaturally contorted hell, with too much of everything and not enough of any real satisfaction. Artists scuttle this way and that, reworking, subverting, rethinking. And nobody has a wholly good time— at best, we get a revised edition of somebody else's good time decades ago.

Band in Berlin, at least, rechews one of the past's less familiar pop genres: Male close harmony, German style. The Comedian Harmonists, its subject, were six guys (five singers and a pianist) who became one of the Weimar Republic's showbiz icons, just in time to watch it crumble and fall into Hitler's hands. After which they hung on till the Nuremberg Laws split the group in two. The Jews emigrated, the Aryans stayed; both teams formed new groups that somehow lacked the old magic.

That's a good story, with the songs to highlight it ready and waiting, but the makers of Band in Berlinseem confused and hesitant in telling it. The Harmonists are represented onstage by their closest contemporary equivalent, the local vocal group Hudson Shad. But the production, by Patricia Birch and Susan Feldman, doesn't attempt to do more than put them through a few jolly moves for each number. There's minimal dialogue, even less interaction, and asking concert singers to dance while they're warbling a cappella would definitely be unwise. Instead, the show blitzes us with slides, film sequences, and a live voice-over narration spoken from offstage by Herbert Rubens.

The members of Hudson Shad in Band in Berlin: 1920s multiculti remastered
Carol Rosegg
The members of Hudson Shad in Band in Berlin: 1920s multiculti remastered

Details

Band in Berlin
By Susan Feldman
Helen Hayes Theatre
Broadway and 44th Street
239-6200

Annie Get Your Gun
By Herbert and Dorothy Fields as revised by Peter Stone
Songs by Irving Berlin
Marquis Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
307-4100

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Some of Birch's musical staging brightens things up— the jaunty, umbrella-swinging treatment of "Stormy Weather" is exactly right— but Feldman's text, skittery and repetitive, is an active hindrance. Instead of details that would clarify the Harmonists' place in their teeming Berlin culture, we get name-dropping, clichés, and dreary MGM-biopic-style bragging about what a big hit they were. The singers are so unindividuated, and the script so reticent about their personal lives, that you start to wonder if some secret's being suppressed: Could these five guys all have been named 'mo?

Politically, it's even more of a muddle, since Feldman doesn't convey what made the Harmonists so problematic to the Nazis. Their mixed racial and national origins— one Bulgarian, one Polish Jew, one half-Jewish Prussian Lutheran— were only the surface of a deeper aesthetic cosmopolitanism. Feldman's narrator says, dismissively, that they sometimes sang "folk songs." But in Germany, folk songs are the nation's history, as recovered, revised, imitated, and enshrined by artists and scholars from the late 18th century on. The folksinging male quartet, by the 1920s a hokey rural joke to urbane Berliners, was a mainstay of the tradition, its style trafficked in by every major poet from Goethe to Stefan George, and every important composer from Weber to Weill.

By adding a fifth voice— a notion the group's founder, baritone Harry Frommermann, derived from American vaudeville acts— the Comedian Harmonists were able to enrich the sound of their traditional repertoire, while their urban pop sensibility augmented it with everything from orchestral standards to new fox-trot tunes. On one of the several CD reissues available, their version of Ellington's "Creole Love Call" is followed by the Gennan folk song "Muss i' denn" — along with "Tea for Two," Dvorak's "Humoresque," and a fake-folk setting of Goethe's "Heidenröslein." In the charged atmosphere of early '30s Germany, you could see them either as multicultural modernists expanding the horizons of a moribund art form, or money-grubbing degenerates out to destroy the purity of an organic native expression.

Feldman doesn't delve into such matters. What Broadway musical could, especially these days? Worse luck for her, since in more conventional terms, the group's story lacks political drama: All the Jews got out alive (though they had rough economic times afterward). And the whole group survived the war. So somebody shouted "Juden raus!" at one of their concerts. Tell it to the entire orchestras who died in Theresienstadt.

Despite all these objections, however, Band in Berlinhas a musicality that makes it fairly unique in the overmiked purlieus of Times Square. When Hudson Shad gets going, particularly in "Whispering" and "It Don't Mean a Thing" (in which Hugo Munday gives an immaculate imitation of Cootie Williams's trumpet), their creamy sound carries on the Harmonists' tradition. What they lack in stage presence— only Munday and musical director Wilbur Pauley, with his wild-eyed gaze, come across as distinct personalities— they make up in musicianship, for those with responsive ears. View the show as a slightly kicky concert, instead of theater, and you'll have a much better time. Only then you'll wonder what it's doing up there at Broadway prices.

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