The Harder They Come Review: Suzan-Lori Parks’s Jukebox Adaptation Falls Hard

The Harder They Come deserves a weirder, more surprising stage adaptation.

The Harder They Come
Photo: Joan Marcus

When Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s very first feature-length film, premiered in 1972, it helped to spread reggae music across the world. But in the more than 50 years since, few musicals have embraced the genre. (Recent exceptions include a Bob Marley jukebox musical that just closed in January on the West End and an earlier stage version of The Harder They Come that also ran in London in 2008.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s new jukebox adaptation at the Public Theater, with its lively direction by Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo, succeeds at offering New York audiences a rejuvenating infusion of Caribbean music. But as hard as the hits may come, in its current iteration, this dramatically tangled reimagining of the film falls pretty hard too.

Ivan (Natey Jones) arrives in Kingston to tell his mother (Jeannette Bayardelle) that his grandmother has died. Instead of heading back to the countryside where he’s grown up, Ivan sticks around, dreaming of becoming a recording star. No matter where Ivan tries his luck—the church, the ganja trade, the music industry—he runs into injustice after injustice, culminating in an act of violence that inadvertently propels him to shocking stardom.

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Parks seems like a natural fit to adapt this material. Ivan is motivated by the same kind of desperate, restless ambition that undergirds the characters in her much-celebrated Topdog/Underdog. But even though the three songs Parks penned for the musical blend in convincingly, her attempt to squeeze the film’s soundtrack (plus a litany of other popular songs) into what amounts to a traditional book musical seems like a doomed approach.

In Henzell’s film, most of the songs, the majority by star and reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, play as underscoring, with just a few performed by Ivan or other artists in a recording studio. Ironically, the film is often aggressively quiet, with songs sometimes half-discernible in the distance, almost as if a radio were playing them in an adjacent room. And whenever music does pull focus, the reggae score breaks in like unexpected squalls of rain in an arid landscape.

Parks snips the songs (there’s more than 20 excerpted in the first act alone) to make their lyrics almost but not quite fit the context of scenes so that characters now sing these reggae hits as soliloquies or to each other. No matter how catchy the tune or inspiring the text (and the show includes some greats like the title song, “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” Toots and the Maytals’s “Sweet and Dandy,” and even Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” now sung in reference to a ganja-induced haze), the songs diminish when bent out of shape and cut short.

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But is there a better-sounding ensemble in New York at the moment? Kenny Seymour’s vocal arrangements and orchestrations detonate brilliantly on stage, brought to life by music director John Bronston. And Edgar Godineaux’s choreography offers similar ebullience across Clint Ramos and Diggle’s rainbow tie-dye set that spills into the audience.

The Harder They Come
A scene from The Harder They Come. © Joan Marcus

The cast’s secret weapons—Bayardelle (a much-deserving Tony nominee last season for Girl from the North Country) and Jacob Ming-Trent (one of New York’s finest Shakespearean actors) as a ganja dealer—seldom get the chance to unsheath their powerhouse voices, but Bayardelle’s approximately 30-second spotlight late in the show may be worth the price of admission alone. As Ivan and his romantic interest Elsa, Jones and Meecah sing compellingly and are especially sweet in their scenes together, even if they’re often undercut by the script’s tendency to simplify psychology en route to the next music cue.

In “Many Rivers to Cross,” a track that Cliff wrote and recorded a few years before it was featured on the film’s soundtrack, he sings what’s basically become the musical’s thesis: “I’ve been licked, washed up for years/And I merely survive because of my pride.” It’s Ivan’s resolve and sustaining sense of self-importance that keeps him going in the face of the many systems rigged against him. But as Cliff also admits in that song, “There’ll be times I find myself/Thinking of committing some dreadful crime.” Parks and her collaborators seem uncomfortable embracing or echoing the film’s complexity around Ivan’s violence, a lethal tear of criminality that emerges in opposition to oppression but quickly morphs into something more calculated and cruel, the manifestation of Ivan’s warped and bloated self-image.

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In trying to massage the film’s discomfort around Ivan’s ultimate actions into something more easily digestible, the musical ends up sanding away the film’s sharp edges. Accepting his heroism from the start, Parks more or less absolves Ivan of any responsibility for his crimes; all that’s left of the film’s cop-killing spree is a single gunshot fired in self-defense. As a result, the denouement, told largely through hammy newscasts and crowd reactions to Ivan’s growing infamy, leaves the show in a tonal muddle. Is this satire? Melodrama? Political commentary?

The impulse to soften Ivan’s story is understandable. There’s concern, clearly, about allowing the rare Caribbean musical theater protagonist to be a brutal killer—a recognition that Ivan may be much of this audience’s only exposure to Jamaican culture, history, and stories. The Harder They Come is also now a conscious celebration of reggae, ska, and rocksteady, as well as the dance traditions to come to prominence alongside those genres in the years following Jamaica’s 1962 independence from England. The musical certainly celebrates those sounds and movements successfully, but because that superbly showcased music is in service of a story that no longer has legible dramatic momentum, the score can’t fully radiate its full heat.

The Harder They Come deserves a weirder, more surprising stage adaptation, one that captures in theatrical language the shaky camerawork that creates an addictive sense of unpredictability and instability on screen. If Parks can manage to divorce her version from the suffocating limitations of a book-musical structure, she might still be the perfect playwright to deliver it.

The Harder They Come is now running at the Public Theater.

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader. He’s also written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare. Check out his podcast The Present Stage.

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