Jamaican classic 'The Harder They Come' becomes a stage musical

by Christine Dolen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

26 August 2009


MIAMI — Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff was in a Kingston recording studio when Perry Henzell, a Jamaican director whose company made commercials, came into the session to meet him.

“He said, ‘I’m making a movie. Do you think you can write the music for it?’” Cliff recalls by phone from New York. “I said, ‘Can I do it? I can do anything!’”

Cliff, as it turns out, wasn’t being cocky or over-confident. He didn’t just write several now-classic songs for Henzell’s 1972 movie, “The Harder They Come”: He also became its star.

The edgy, exciting movie-with-music became a cult classic, one that helped introduce reggae to the larger world and propel Cliff’s career to a higher level. More than three decades later, Henzell’s masterwork was reconceived as musical theater in London. And on Saturday, the British production begins its only U.S. run at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Henzell loosely based his screenplay (cowritten with Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone) on the true story of Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin. Martin was a Jamaican outlaw gunned down by the police in 1948, a guy who taunted the cops by writing “I was here, but I disappear” on walls.

The director had the notion of making a once-innocent country boy named Ivan O. Martin into an aspiring singer who turns bad after he’s cheated by a record producer. He assembled a cast of many nonactors, including Cliff, a handsome and wiry Island Records artist. Cliff’s photos on an album cover — one on the front radiating openness and innocence, the other on the back suggesting a dangerous edge — made Henzell think the singer could pull off Ivan’s emotional journey.

“I thought Perry was really intelligent in directing. He would say, ‘How would you do that?’ That’s why it came out so real,” Cliff says. “I knew about the character. Ivan’s name shook terror in the hearts and minds of people.”

With its shots of the lush Jamaican countryside, diamond dots of sunshine sparkling on the Caribbean and the blinding white sand of the beach where a defiant Ivan is gunned down, “The Harder They Come” is a dazzling amalgam of gritty travelogue, shocking crime film and neorealist music video. Its famous soundtrack includes songs by the Melodians, the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, the Slickers and four numbers by Cliff, including the haunting “Many Rivers to Cross” and the title song.

In his lyrics to “The Harder They Come,” Cliff perfectly encapsulates Ivan’s yearning and determination. In the final verse of a song that is jaunty and threatening, he sings, “And I keep on fighting for the things I want/Though I know that when you’re dead you can’t/But I’d rather be a free man in my grave/Than living as a puppet or a slave.”

The movie, Cliff says, “really propelled me to another level, all over the world. I was big in Europe but not that big in the United States. I couldn’t have toured there for two to three months, as I did after the movie.”

Island Records founder Chris Blackwell also made the most of Henzell’s movie by booking Bob Marley for concerts in cities where the film had played. Suddenly, reggae was everywhere.

One of those who noticed was Jan Ryan, a British theater producer who wound up coproducing the stage version of “The Harder They Come.”

“I saw the film in the early ‘70s. That and Bob Marley’s visit to the U.K. got me into Jamaican culture,” Ryan says from London. “I first met Perry in 2003-2004. I kept e-mailing him saying, ‘I want to do this.’”

Henzell’s daughter Justine, one of the founders of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, recalls that her father was hesitant.

“Perry was always reluctant to do anything as a spinoff. The movie had absorbed so much of his creative energy and passion. It was, ‘I’ve been there, done that,’” she says from Kingston. “But after Jan Ryan got behind it, Perry wrote the book, wrote new lyrics, flew to London and got involved.”

The vision of what “The Harder They Come” should become onstage was not cohesive at first.

“Perry started off with the idea of an epic $50 million musical,” says Kerry Michael, who helped develop the show at London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East and co-directed it with Dawn Reid. “He saw helicopters and scenery flying in.”

Ryan acknowledges some lively discussions as the musical was being created. Henzell’s daughter observes that her father, who died in late 2006, was “a very strong-minded individual. He thought outside the box. It would have been unusual for him to be in a creative collaboration and not have issues. But it would have been a debate. What came out of that was a wonderful production.”

Creatively transformed, the stage version of “The Harder They Come” takes place on an almost empty stage painted Rastafarian red, green and yellow. It is Ninth Night, when tradition dictates a deceased person is remembered through stories and music as mourners eat and down Jamaican rum. And this Ninth Night is for Ivan, a wake for an antihero.

The approach is simple and Brechtian: No one except Ivan leaves the stage. The band is there too; the actors talk to the audience. This “The Harder They Come” isn’t realistic or neorealistic; it’s clearly theater, albeit with great music that has a more direct focus than it did in the movie.

Rolan Bell, a British actor whose parents are Jamaican, plays Ivan in the stage version of “The Harder They Come.” As with Cliff, he has seen his career take off because of his starring role (he now plays Theo in the BBC series “EastEnders”).

“I love reggae. I was brought up on it. My mum’s been singing it to me since I was 3,” Bell says from Toronto, the show’s only other North American stop. “She’s given me the imagery of Jamaica: the lifestyle, the suffering, love, pain. I feel I’ve almost lived there.”

Of the songs he gets to sing in the show, he says, “The music was written by people who were survivors. There’s nothing poppy about it. It’s, ‘Let me tell a story.’ There’s a lot of emotional depth.”

Joanna Francis plays Elsa, the churchgoing girl who captures Ivan’s heart. The Kingston-based performer says, “Reggae’s a part of my culture. I feel a sense of home away from home. Jimmy’s lyrics are very deep.”

She adds that “half of my high school lives in Miami, and they’re all coming to the show.”

So are Justine Henzell, Jan Ryan, some Jamaican officials and, possibly, Cliff. When the show opened in London, Cliff jumped onstage for an encore with the cast, a moment Francis remembers as “electrifying.”

Miami-based Jamaican Consul General Sandra Grant Griffiths, who has seen “widespread interest” in the show among Jamaicans at home and in Miami, speaks eloquently of a movie she calls a cult classic.

“The Harder They Come” is part of Jamaica’s cultural development. It’s a very human story, a capsule of the 1970s. Jimmy was outstanding. He went from strength to strength. It’s a benchmark performance,” says Griffiths, who plans to be in the Arsht’s opening-night audience. “We’ll be celebrating Jamaica’s cultural history.”

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