‘The Harder They Come’ Off Broadway Review: How to Cut Jimmy Cliff Down to Size

Suzan-Lori Parks radically bowdlerizes the classic movie for the musical stage

Natey Jones in the world premiere musical The Harder They Come (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Does the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come” need to be sanitized for the musical stage?

This is the film that “brought reggae to the world,” according to the Los Angeles Times, and it starred the man who wrote that music, the legendary Jimmy Cliff. Reggae was new to America in 1972. Equally new for the movies was Cliff’s determined and unrepentant antihero character, Ivan, who is every bit the “troublemaker” people label him as soon as he leaves the country to become a recording star in Kingston, Jamaica.

Stage musicals from “Show Boat” to “Funny Girl” to “Chicago” have exploited the a-star-is-born legend, and the movie “The Harder They Come” fits the formula like a snug Rasta hemp hat. If only Cliff’s lead character wasn’t so radical, edgy and violent. Clearly, some people at the Public Theater believe Ivan needed some cleaning up, some cutting down to size, and with new songs and a book by Suzan-Lori Parks, the stage musical “The Harder They Come” had its world premiere Wednesday at the Off Broadway theater with some sanitization.

In addition to writing the book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) shows real talent for songwriting here. Several new songs have been added to the original soundtrack, and Parks replicates Cliff’s infectious sound while also providing the kind of book songs that reveal character and further the plot. Providing ample support are Kenny Seymour’s orchestrations and arrangements that make Parks’s music flow easily into Cliff’s big hits.

Her book closely follows the movie’s plot, and Tony Taccone’s direction, Sergio Trujillo’s co-direction and Edgar Godineaux’s choreography deliver a couple of genuine showstoppers early in the first act: A quick trip to see a spaghetti Western becomes a showcase for that Kingston movie audience to turn itself into the outlaws they see onscreen. Later, at the church, a gospel moment of deep devotion and prayer quickly turns horny to show the growing physical attraction between Ivan and a young female disciple, Elsa. “The Harder They Come,” the stage musical, gets off to a raucously splendid start.

But what made Cliff’s film character so distinctive is that he’s not such a nice guy. Ivan is actually so ruthless and hell bent on success that he turns musical bad guys like Pal Joey and Billy Bigelow into mere wimps. In musical theater terms, Ivan is closer to Sweeney Todd, but blessed with a great smile, cocky walk and winning attitude that the women can’t resist.

For example, given a desperately needed job by a preacher, Ivan in the movie ends up fighting over a repaired bicycle, and when he has clearly won that physical altercation, he mercilessly cuts up his opponent’s face. Additionally, having fallen in love with Elsa and taken her away from the church, he mistreats the woman by spending all their money on flashy clothes. Then when he realizes that his cut of selling illegal ganja is minuscule compared to the profits, he goes on a vengeful rampage of violence. Then, and only then, does the evil record producer Hilton release the single “The Harder They Come,” giving it wide airplay to take advantage of Ivan’s new status as a folk hero among the oppressed.

The character, in fact, was based on a real outlaw from the 1940s who achieved widespread fame among the Jamaican people for murdering a few bad people who got in his way. One poster for the film version said it all: “With a piece in his hand he takes on the man!”

In that screenplay by Trevor Rhone and Perry Henzel, who also produced and directed the film, Ivan is justified for what he does because he has been exploited. Ivan, as envisioned by Parks, is still exploited –but he’s now a sweet, guileless guy who is merely a victim of circumstance. In other words, he has been reduced to a reactive character, no longer the active one Ivan is in the movie.

Cliff captivated with his unapologetic resolve to win. In the stage musical, Natey Jones also charms, but he plays Ivan with the playful innocence of a deer lost in the headlights of an urban traffic jam. When the fight over the bicycle gets out of control, Parks sees to it that it’s no longer a one-on-one battle. Here, Ivan is outnumbered and the police intervene to take the side of the preacher (J. Bernard Calloway). Ivan is then arrested, but no gratuitous blood is shed, nobody’s face gets chopped up just for the fun of it. Parks also makes the preacher (Garfield Hammonds subbing for Ken Robinson) considerably more evil by giving him the hots for the young Elsa (Meecah). There are shades of “Sweeney Todd” and Judge Turpin here.

Parks even transforms Ivan into a caring husband, meaning Elsa no longer has any reason to accuse him of being a deadbeat. Nor does she possess any deep qualms about abandoning her church. When Ivan shoots a policeman in the stage musical, he isn’t the one who starts the conflict. He is provoked. It’s all a big accident, and Ivan is really sorry for what happened. The one thing Cliff never is in the movie is apologetic.

Parks doesn’t stop there. She softens other characters: Newly arrived in Kingston, Ivan gives his mother (Jeannette Bayardelle) the news that his grandmother recently died and the funeral has already taken place. Distraught, the grieving woman gives her son what’s left of the inheritance and lovingly tells him to go back to the country where he belongs. In the movie, it’s quite a different story. The mother, after briefly and hysterically observing the loss, berates her son and her own dead mother for having spent most of the inheritance on the funeral. It’s the kind of humorous twist that’s typical of the movie, and it shocks because it’s so honest: Of course, a woman as destitute as Ivan’s mother would be most concerned about the money. The movie “The Harder They Come” is all about survival. The stage musical is all about tugging at our heart strings.

Parks reduces these two major female characters to tropes. One of them is the loving, self-sacrificing mother and the other is nothing more than the loving, dutiful wife. Neither Meecah nor Bayardelle can do much with these stereotypes, but they do deliver amazing vocals when given the chance to sing.