‘The Harder They Come’: Inside the Stage Musical Adaptation

Here are excerpts from “‘The Harder They Come’: Inside the Stage Musical Adaptation of the Movie That Introduced Reggae to the World” by Nacey Watson Johnson (Billboard). The play is currently in previews at The Public Theater in New York City, opening March 15, 2023. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

Reggae brings vivid images to mind. Stripes in red, gold, black and green. Sun-kissed palms lining shores of the Caribbean Sea. Bob Marley’s dreads shaking to the beat.

Less common is that of Jimmy Cliff in a slouched mustard cap, brandishing a gun in each hand, with all the smooth cool of Shaft meets John Wayne. That iconic, hand-drawn image graced the poster for Perry Henzell’s 1972 film The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican singer-actor who also performed half of the hit soundtrack. Arriving before Marley became an international phenomenon, The Harder They Come is widely credited with introducing reggae to global listeners.

It was also Jamaica’s first feature film, released a decade after the nation’s independence from the U.K. Fifty years later, on the golden anniversary of its New York release, The Harder They Come officially opens on March 15 as an off-Broadway musical stage adaptation at The Public Theater in New York City (the show is currently in previews). Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks pens the book; Tony Award nominee Tony Taccone directs; Tony Award winner Sergio Trujillo co-directs; Kenny Seymour is the music supervisor; and choreography comes from Edgar Godineaux.

In keeping with the film, The Harder They Come tells the story of aspiring singer, Ivanhoe Martin, with Natey Jones playing Cliff’s original role. A rural fish-out-of-water who arrives in Kingston eager to realize starlit dreams, he falls in love and manages to cut a record, but finds his ambitions thwarted by gatekeepers and rigged systems. Ivan relentlessly fights to assert agency over his own existence, becoming both outlaw and local hero in the process. His record ascends to anthem status, a rallying cry of uplift that sweeps the island.

The original soundtrack’s reception mirrored the film’s plot, changing the soundscape of global music by popularizing the vigorous percussion, upbeat skank stroke and the hypnotic 4/4 tempo found in reggae. Its sonic and cultural influence spans decades and genres—influencing everyone from DJ Kool Herc to The Rolling Stones to Maroon 5 to Beyoncé.

Reflection upon these layers of legacy and relevance were at the heart of this adaptation. “It’s about the right for someone to sing their song,” says Parks. “It’s such an important film to world culture, and to the people of Jamaica. So we came with respect. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we are rolling the wheel forward.”

The play flushes out the film’s minor and supporting characters, giving nuanced and elevated considerations to everyone’s stories. Elsa, Ivan’s love interest played by Meecah, is given her own songs. Ivan’s mother, Daisy, who originally appeared in a single scene, has a show-length arc witnessing Ivan’s journey. The policeman with whom Ivan comes in fatal contact is mourned on stage. “The shooting is an accident. We don’t glorify that beat in the show. Ivan is the hero, but there can be more than one. Everyone has a point of view that’s interesting and worth hearing,” Parks notes.

This philosophy of multiplicity, that various perspectives are worth showcasing and reexamining, resounds in the setlist as well. Fans of the original soundtrack will hear all the familiar favorites, but in a new order and with additional music stitched in. “Many Rivers to Cross,” for example, is deftly shifted to an emotional and climactic moment. Repurposed gospel hymns heighten the narrative—such as Ivan and Elsa falling in love to “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” [. . .]

Reggae has its own history within Jamaican music. Ska developed first in the 1950s combining mento, calypso, jazz and rhythm and blues. Rocksteady then dominated Jamaica’s dance scene of the mid-1960s. All three dynamic styles are celebrated in The Harder They Come, with Seymour highlighting instruments like the bubble organ and reggae’s famed bass guitar. “They each have nuances and intricacies. Approaching this piece, first and foremost, was about maintaining the musical and cultural integrity,” Seymour affirms.

Though the show takes place in the ’70s, contemporary beats are also woven into the production’s sound. Says Seymour, “Everything from dancehall to dub is a part of the reggae Jamaican culture. They all play a part, and where they are introduced is very slick. There will be something for everybody. Speaking to today’s audience, this is going to spark old memories and make new ones.” [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/the-harder-they-come-musical-play-stage-1235281865

[Photo above by Joan Marcus: Natey Jones in the world premiere musical The Harder They Come, with book and additional new songs by Suzan-Lori Parks, songs by Jimmy Cliff, co-direction by Sergio Trujillo, and direction by Tony Taccone, at The Public Theater.]

Also see https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2223/the-harder-they-come and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0noTV42SLTc from The Public Theater New York, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10003.

Also see previous posts https://repeatingislands.com/2023/02/13/the-harder-they-come-musical-at-the-public-theater and https://repeatingislands.com/2023/02/13/the-harder-they-come-was-a-heros-journey-set-to-reggae-its-about-to-become-a-new-musical

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