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Leading Ladies Julie Benko and Sierra Boggess Share the Stage in Harmony

It would be hard to name two leading ladies who have made bigger or better impressions on Broadway in recent years than Julie Benko and Sierra Boggess. Benko rocketed to the attention of theater lovers as the celebrated standby-turned-replacement-turned-alternate for Lea Michele in the role of Fanny Brice in Michael Mayer’s revival of Funny Girl; Boggess has delivered star turns ranging from Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera to Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Rosalie in School of Rock: The Musical.

Now these exceptional women come together for the first time in Harmony, set to begin previews October 18 and open November 13. Featuring music by pop icon Barry Manilow and a book and lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, Harmony would at first blush appear to be more focused on men. Inspired by a documentary that Sussman saw back in the early 1990s, the musical went through several incarnations before arriving Off-Broadway last year as the story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German vocal sextet that flourished in the 1920s and early ’30s but was ended by Hitler’s rise, as half of its members were Jewish.

But a few brave, resilient women are central to the story. Boggess, who was part of the cast downtown, reprises her role as Mary, a Christian woman who converts to Judaism to marry a young rabbi in the group. Benko, who joined the company after participating in a workshop last year, plays Mary’s friend Ruth, a Jewish woman who channels her desire for social justice into bolshevism and is an ardent activist. (The iconic entertainer Josephine Baker also figures into the plot, and is being played by Allison Semmes.)

Benko, who is Jewish herself, notes that Ruth is the one character in Harmony who isn’t directly based on one real-life figure. “She’s an amalgamation, and she was named for a Holocaust survivor who lived in Bruce Sussman’s building,” Benko says. “I think of [the character] as a little like the AOC of her time and place” — referring to the Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Ruth stands for progressive, liberal values, which were very common among young Jews. They still are. I’m not a Bolshevik, but I’m very inspired by what Ruth stands for, a world with more equality and justice.”

Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld in Harmony. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Sierra Boggess and Danny Kornfeld in Harmony. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Mary, Boggess explains, “doesn’t have the calling in her spirit to march and protest like Ruth does, but she does things behind the scenes. She’s a seamstress by trade, and she makes Mary a coat out of pure red fabric that she finds on a sofa, because the color represents the Bolsheviks at that time, who were anti-Nazi. There are different ways to fight evil in this world; it’s all about what is your truth. Ruth has her truth — forgive the rhyme — and Mary has hers, and that’s what brings them together.”

Benko notes that she and Boggess “spent a lot of time together,” both alone and with director Warren Carlyle, “making our characters’ relationship really specific and talking about what we don’t get to see in the show. We’ve been handing each other all these research papers, about what it looked like for Jewish women versus non-Jewish women at the time. I’d been such a big fan of Sierra, and she’s phenomenal to work with, so smart and down-to-earth and such an imaginative collaborator. She’s really open to hearing new ideas and bringing in her own.”

Boggess calls Benko “a fabulous actress, and very smart. I’ve loved watching her inhabit Ruth, and finding different things together to make these characters our Mary and Ruth. This show is really about six men — there are only three women’s stories, those of Mary and Ruth and Josephine Baker — so when we’re on stage, it’s important that we provide the women’s perspectives.”

Julie Benko in rehearsals for Harmony. Photo by Paul Aphisit.
Julie Benko in rehearsals for Harmony. Photo by Paul Aphisit.

Benko, who lost ancestors in the Holocaust, believes Harmony’s arrival on Broadway is especially timely. “There has been this huge rise in antisemitism in the last few years. Unfortunately, shows about antisemitism are always timely; Fiddler in the Roof would not come back every 10 years if they weren’t,” she says. “But there has been an undeniable change in the temperature … and that’s part of why this story is really resonating for people. It’s a story about friendship and allyship, because you have this group of three Jews and three non-Jews who make music together, and then in Act 2 the non-Jews support their Jewish friends. I think that, ultimately, it’s a celebration of what that sense of support can be.”

Boggess, who is not Jewish, agrees. “I’m so happy but also deeply saddened that we have to tell these stories, that antisemitism is on the rise again,” she says. “It makes me so angry; it’s so frustrating and confusing. But the message of this show is that you’re not alone. We watch these six men come together in the worst of times to make harmony. Even in those times, music prevailed, and there was hope, and the necessity of connection. We are hardwired for that kind of connection; we are not hardwired to hate each other. I want the audience to take that away. You will be completely moved by this show, but you will also laugh and be hopeful.”

Learn More About Harmony