There’s something about Chip Zien’s laugh. Several things, actually, starting with its warmth. And while it can no doubt accelerate to boisterous given the right scenario, in general conversation this laugh is pretty laid back…and spontaneous. Much like Zien himself.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
One of Broadway’s most celebrated performers, Zien recalls listening to musical theatre albums alongside his sister as a kid growing up in Milwaukee. “I was a boy soprano and didn’t find out until I was an adult that my dad was tone deaf, so my talent had to come from my mom’s side of the family,” he said.
His professional acting trajectory—from summer stock gigs as a kid to his arrival in New York—wasn’t exactly straightforward, but once he put down Big Apple roots, he was a working actor, with numerous Broadway credits, including the lead role of the Baker in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
Steven Telsey, Blake Roman, Danny Kornfeld, Chip Zien, Eric Peters, Sean Bell, and Zal Owen. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Fast forward to 2022 and the role of lifetime. “I had said to my agent, ‘I’ve been playing a lot of guys in their 70s, basically Jewish. Is there anything out there that’s different? Are we missing anything?’” Clearly, the fates weren’t ready to think outside the box, as Zien’s agent countered, “There’s this part of an 87-year-old rabbi and they’re already interested in you.”
The project was Harmony, the new Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman musical based on the true-life story of six young singers in Berlin—The Comedian Harmonists—who rose to international superstardom in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their jaw-dropping harmonies sold countless records, while their madcap antics filled the world’s music halls to capacity. Adoring fans even flocked to see their films—dozens of them. But until this musical, they remained largely lost to history, their legacy almost completely eradicated once the Nazis seized power.“
The show had been in development since 1997 but once director/choreographer Warren Carlyle joined Manilow and Sussman, the three decided to add the character of “Rabbi,” the group’s last surviving member, who would become the production’s narrator, tummler, conscience, mirror image to his younger self, and in a fiercely compelling 11 o’clock number (“Threnody”), the personification of regret.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
“After my agent sent me the script, I got on the phone with Barry, who’d seen things I’d done. He was complimentary; I was embarrassed,” said Zien. “But he was so helpful throughout the process. Everything I sang in show he would sing for me. And he’d tell me, ‘I’ll put it in any key that’s comfortable for you. It’s more important to live through the emotion—feel free to follow your instincts.’”
Sussman and Carlyle were equally supportive, allowing Zien the freedom to create a relatable, three-dimensional character. “I like to work in an atmosphere that’s funny and fun and free of embarrassment—one that allows you to fail,” he said. “That’s what they provided and it was amazing.”
The first outing for the revamped script took place at Off-Broadway’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, a highly successful run that propelled Harmony into Broadway’s fast lane in November, 2023—Folksbeine company intact.
Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, and Sean Bell. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Danny Kornfeld, who plays Rabbi (Josef Roman Cycowski’s nickname) as a young man, is a perfect physical counterpart to Zien, both in height and mannerisms. Rounding out the sextet are Comedian Harmonists founder Harry (Zal Owen), a Bulgarian named Lesh (Steven Telsey), Erich, a med student (Eric Peters), Erwin Bootz aka Chopin (Blake Roman), and bass soloist Bobby (Sean Bell).
“I love these guys…every one of them is hilarious”, Zien said. “Through workshops, rehearsals, previews, opening night, and eight shows a week…It feels like a party up there every performance.”
Julie Benko and Sierra Boggess. Photo by Adam Riemer.
The two leading female roles are Ruth, a Jewish firebrand played by Julie Benko, and Sierra Boggess, who gives crystalline voice to Mary, the gentile who converts to Judaism to marry the young Rabbi. And it’s these two diverse characters that ignite the heart and underlying conflict that makes Harmony such a unique and important piece of musical theatre.
“I feel our show has two things going on. One is the Comedian Harmonists as a group that existed decades ago, now with a new generation of actors hitting the humor high points while giving voice to gorgeous harmonies. The second is the big ideas that slid away, from fledgling democracy to horrifying fascism,” Zien said. “Our show looks at both of those things.”
Allison Semmes as Josephine Baker and the company of Harmony. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
HARMONY is playing at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. To reserve tickets, call 212-239-6200, or visit harmonyanewmusical.com.