Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original film release, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has turned The Harder They Come, the cult Jamaican film that starred later reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, into an exuberant stage musical now at The Public Theater. Led by British stage star Natey Jones and American Caribbean actress Meecah, the large cast does full justice to the new score which includes the ten songs used in the movie plus 26 other Jamaican and traditional songs, additionally interpolated ones by Cliff and others, and some with additional lyrics by Parks. There are also three original songs by Parks herself who when she is not involved with one of her plays fronts her own rock band.
Directed by Tony Taccone, formerly artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, as well as the Eureka Theatre where he commissioned and co-directed Angels in America in its first production, The Harder They Come is a colorful and tuneful Jamaican extravaganza that retells the tale of Ivan who wants to be a recording star in Kingston. The film is generally credited with introducing reggae music created in Jamaica to the rest of the world.
While Parks’ stage musical is generally faithful to the movie plot, it gives a larger role to the women, Ivan’s girlfriend and later wife Elsa and his mother Daisy. It also avoids the many chase scenes in the film, difficult on stage, and instead makes Ivan a sort of Robin Hood standing up for the rights of the working people. The many additional songs adding up to 32 with reprises makes this stage show more of a musical than the original crime film was.
Ivan comes to Kingston from the country on the death of his grandmother hoping to record a song. He is immediately robbed of all his possessions. Finding his mother Daisy, he discovers that she lives in poverty and can’t take him in. Although she wants him to return to the country, he attempts to find a job in Kingston with no luck. He discovers that the Kingston music business is controlled by Hilton who is very corrupt. He is taken in by Preacher who gives him a job, food and shelter. Sent to Hilton’s to pick up records for a church event, Ivan convinces Hilton to let him record his song, “The Harder They Come,” but Ivan refuses to sign a contract to release the song which pays him only $20.
When he falls in love with Preacher’s ward Elsa, an innocent and strong-willed young woman, a rivalry develops between the two men. A fight breaks out between Ivan and Preacher’s foreman Lyle and when Ivan slashes him he is arrested which begins his involvement with the police. Afterwards, Ivan gets a job with a drug dealer Jose distributing ganja but finds that this business is just as corrupt as the music industry. He decides to accept the $20 contract but finds that does not give him the right to perform his song in pubic without Hilton’s permission.
When Ivan complains to Jose about the inequities between the workers and the higher ups, Jose contacts his police enforcer Ray who agrees to take care of Ivan who is stopped at the check point that he has always gotten through with no trouble. When the policeman goes to shoot Ivan, Ivan kills him and has to go on the run. At this point Hilton releases his record and it becomes a huge hit with Ivan now an outlaw folk hero. Daisy, Elsa and Pedro, his friend, all give Ivan advice but his story ends badly before an apotheosis of what might have been.
The new score includes all of the iconic songs by Cliff used in the film (“You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “The Harder They Come,” and “Sitting in Limbo”) as well as seven additional ones (“Hitting with Music,” “Hard Road to Travel,” “Hello Sunshine,” “Please Tell Me Why,” “Better Days Are Coming,” “Aim and Ambition,” and “Law Man Gonna Come (Bongo Man),” all beautifully positioned in the storyline. Aside from the other songs from the film, the score includes the iconic Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” (the only famous American song in the show), the traditional “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker, as well as his “Kingston Town (007 Shanty Town),” used as the opening number, and Dorothy Love Coates’ “Let’s Come in the House” used as choral prayers, as well as Parks’ own songs, “Hero Don’t Never Die,” “Hymn,” and “The Ballad of Ivan,” which fill in gaps. The eight member band led by music director John Bronston keeps the rhythm pulsing throughout.
The mainly Caribbean cast is quite authentic in playing their roles and creating a sense of community in the street and club scenes. Natey Jones making his New York debut as Ivan is charismatic and charming in a quiet sort of way, although the show does not allow him to transcend into a folk hero. As his girlfriend and later wife, the staunch Meecah is sweet and empathetic. J. Bernard Calloway as Preacher, Dominique Johnson as Jose, Ken Robinson as Hilton, and Dudney Joseph, Jr. as Officer Ray are fine as various kinds of sinister authority figures. Jacob Ming-Trent is the only other notable character as the supportive Pedro. As written, Jeannette Bayardelle’s as Ivan’s mother Daisy is inconsistent, first sending Ivan home, then become one of his Kingston supporters, and finally demanding he pray for his sins.
The large unit set, a collaboration by Clint Ramos and Diggle, is both utilitarian and colorful, using two turntables, a balcony level and a screen for video and slide projection by Hana S. Kim. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are colorful in a muted sort of way, while the ever changing lighting by Japhy Weideman highlights the other design elements.
The Harder They Come now seems like a period piece five decades after its original release with both mores and laws quite different than they were then. Sticking so closely to the original plot, Suzan Lori Parks’ adaptation of the film does not offer many surprises though it remains engrossing storytelling. Tony Taccone’s production at The Public Theater is rewarding entertainment as well as an immersion into Jamaican culture as it was in 1972.
They Harder They Come (through April 9, 2023)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission