The iconic 1972 Jamaican film, “The Harder They Come,” starring Jimmy Cliff, is set to become a new musical stage production on its 50th anniversary. The creative talents behind musicals about The Temptations and Ray Charles is adapting the classic story of an aspiring reggae musician who turns outlaw and anti-hero told in the Perry Henzell film as a musical. The impact the film had when it was released in 1972 cannot be overstated, as, at that time, there was little knowledge of recognition of reggae music or the artistry of Bob Marley outside of Jamaica. “The Harder They Come” introduced the world to Jamaica’s music and culture, and in 2020, the film was included in the National Registry at the United States Library of Congress. The soundtrack, dominated by Jimmy Cliff’s music, is considered an essential reggae collection and was ranked at Number 174 in Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.
Fifty years later, the story remains relevant and is expected to appeal to a new generation. The musical based on the film, and a potential remake of the film itself, reflects the hope of Justine Henzell, a filmmaker and the daughter of Perry Henzell, to see “if one great piece of art can inspire more great pieces of art.”
The musical adaptation is scheduled to open in March 2023 at the Public Theater in New York. It follows the film in telling the story of Ivan, the singer/songwriter who moves from rural Jamaica to Kingston to pursue a career in the music industry. However, he finds nothing but menial work and an unethical local music kingpin in experiences that run counter to his dream. Ivan does find fame and success after a shoot-out with police transforms him into a celebrity outlaw with his song as an anthem.
The creators behind the concept of “The Harder They Come” as a musical include Sergio Trujillo, who won a Tony Award for choreography in the Temptations’ musical “Ain’t Too Proud,” and Tony Taccone, with the adaptation written by Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The idea of bringing the story to the stage as a musical was previously achieved in 2006 when a production played in London for two years.
The new attempt at staging was prompted by the film’s 50th anniversary and was spearheaded by Henzell’s daughter, who was too young to have seen the original film in 1973. The new adaptation has the blessing of Henzell and input from Jimmy Cliff. It includes some expansion of characters’ backstories and additional music recorded by Cliff and Johnny Nash later on. It also features themes that are likely to resonate with modern audiences, including economic disparity, corruption in the police and the music industry, and fame that comes with notoriety. Additionally, the story’s reconceptualizing will not end once the musical opens in March, as a live-studio version of the movie score has been released, and a remake of the film – or a “reimagining” – is also in the works.