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.”
As much for style as necessity Parks admits, “in the musical, the joyous challenge is assuring the music makes sense coming out of characters’ mouths. It’s not an easy thing to do. You can hear a song in the background during a film scene, and that’s cool. In a musical the character has to turn to you and sing that song.
“I was writing the script with one hand while flipping through Jimmy Cliff’s catalog. Our show has many songs from his brilliant catalog that aren’t on the original soundtrack. We’ve also got classic hits from Toots and The Maytals and Desmond Dekker. When we needed a song that I couldn’t find in the treasure troves of Jamaican classics, I wrote one. So I’ve written three songs for the show.”
The task of blending it all together into a seamless sonic experience fell to music supervisor, orchestrator and arranger Seymour.
“I liken music to an engine with many moving parts. Every part has a roll, like pistons firing at the right time. It’s a balance. There are so many iconic songs in the show, and they stem from a cultural movement. People are most familiar with the one drop every third beat, but that’s not all there is,” he says.
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.”
Godineaux has also taken care to infuse the choreography with traditional and contemporary styles of dance. As dance was not part of the original film, Godineaux steered away from the musical theater template to reflect Jamaican culture as much as possible.
“You have to show this world and who these people are not only with their words, but in their body language. It was like creating a whole new genre for this story. That was the best part for me.
“There is a lot of movement that goes with the reggae vibe, but the most authentic has a lot of gyration. Everything involves the pelvis, a sense of inner going out. A lot of people see that as vulgarity, but that’s not what this culture is about. It’s more about intimacy, wearing your heart on your sleeve. It’s about enjoying life, feeling the spiritual side of life, and emanating that to anyone next to you whether dancing or just conversing with them,” he proposes.
The thematic notion of faith, woven throughout this production, will perhaps be the most notable update for familiar fans. While church life is at the fabric of Jamaican society, its role was barely touched upon in the film other than Ivan’s first adversary being a preacher. Yet in the lyrics of the film and play’s title song Ivan sings, “They tell me there’s a pie up in the sky / Waiting for me when I die / But between the day you’re born and when you die / No one ever seems to hear you cry.”
The creative team teases out that conflict and some thoughtful convergences between the secular and the religious in this adaptation. Parks recalls saying to Meecah, “Remember that in his day, Jesus was the ultimate revolutionary. The fact that Elsa’s falling for the bad boy isn’t so far off base from what she believes in every Sunday.”
Godineaux speaks fondly of a rehearsal moment with the cast. “I did a lot of research for this piece, speaking with people like Kwame Dawes. He helped me understand more about Kumina, which is a spiritual connection to the culture from a dance perspective.”
The Kumina religion, of which music and dance are paramount, was brought to Jamaica by enslaved people of the Congo region in West Africa. The drumming heard in its ceremonies influenced Rastafarian music, creating a direct through line to the rhythms of reggae.
“In Act 2 we have what I call The Blessing of The Soil. When the cast members, many people of Jamaican descent, saw me add that movement they said, ‘You’re blessing the land! My grandparents said that’s what you have to do to get things to grow.’ I put that in the movement because I thought that’s something people of all cultures could recognize and connect to.”
Connectivity—between past and present, local and worldwide, individual spirit and communal belonging—is at the core of this story, both within its narrative and enduring legacy. It is a testament to the power of one song, one rhythmic drop, to make sonic tsunamis ripple across oceans.
Says Parks, “The Harder They Come is an uplifting, affirming show. Once the music starts, it never stops. You see the exuberance of a community and you’re reminded of your own. Wherever you come from, whoever you are. It’s got a groove that’s undeniable.”