Bob Marley's music finally made it to Times Square — but not like he intended.
Long before he became an international icon of roots rock reggae, the late Jamaican singer recorded a 1972 track for CBS Records, "Reggae on Broadway." That song, a mix of funk, reggae and rock, was intended to get radio airplay in England and the United States at a time when Broadway symbolized crossover success. The single flopped, even as it left an idea in the universe.
Enter playwright and director Michael J. Bobbitt. In 2014, his "Bob Marley's Three Little Birds," a musical that uses 15 Marley songs — and borrows its title from the singer's anthem to natural optimism — sold out its limited run at the New Victory Theater in New York.
Now Bobbitt has updated the show, adapted from a children's book by Bob's daughter Cedella Marley, for a new production that makes its regional premiere Friday at Children's Theatre in Minneapolis.
"Because Bob Marley is so universally loved, this show is the mother lode for diversity," said Bobbitt, artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in suburban Boston. "The play is inspired by some of the lyrics in the main song, by Bob Marley's life and work, and by Jamaica's history, culture and myths. It's a modern-day reggae fairy tale."
While the show uses Marley songs such as "Jamming," "One Love" and "I Shot the Sheriff," it's not a stage biography of the singer, like Kwame Kwei-Armah's "One Love," Bobbitt said. Instead, taking off from Cedella Marley's picture book, the playwright has written a wholly invented story of trauma and triumph that fuses Jamaican mythology and mysticism with kiddie heroics.
In the narrative, 11-year-old Ziggy has survived a hurricane that has left him fearful. He does not want to leave the house, afraid not just of storms but also of the hair-snatching Duppy (spirit) that covets Ziggy's flowing dreadlocks. But he has friends in the natural world, including Dr. Bird, who steel him in his courage.
Coming through trauma
"It's a piece about resiliency, about a human community and a natural community helping little Ziggy to find his strength," said Peter Brosius, Children's Theatre artistic director. "It's also about the power of hope and optimism. You can get caught in a hurricane not of your own making, feel frightened, close yourself off, but the community extends an invitation for him to come out of himself and he has to decide whether to accept it."
"Three Little Birds" is a perfect fit for the nation's largest theater for youths and families, Brosius said. "With Ziggy, you start with a young person who has felt fear, so that even though he desires to be part of this enlivened, warm musical community, his fear has the upper hand," he said. "Young people can be incredibly strong and heroic."
"Three Little Birds," the title song, predates Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" and "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King," two tracks that similarly seek to cheer up someone feeling down and hopeless. But the Marley song is more mystical and more attuned to the natural world in a non-gimmicky way.
"There's something magnetic about reggae that helps it transcend all generations, races and creeds," said director Shá Cage, who traveled to Jamaica for research. "The colors and vibrancy of the music reflect the resilience of the people of Jamaica, who have so much love, laughter and light no matter what."
The idea for the show came almost serendipitously. In 2012, Bobbitt came across a write-up about an elementary school teacher who was trying to get kids to stay on beat. "The teacher tried pop, rock and other things, but nothing worked except reggae," said Bobbitt, who at the time was running a theater in Washington, D.C. "People were using reggae to engage kids, so we reached out to Cedella and her people and asked her if we could adapt her book."
Bobbitt then set about immersing himself in the culture and history of Jamaica — colonized in waves of conquests by Spain and Britain, mixing Africans brought over to be enslaved with European overseers and colonial subjects from India and China. The country is a genetic melting pot, with DNA from Africa, Europe and Asia mixing in the bloodlines of much of the island's 3 million people.
As he researched, he came across the idea of duppies, or spirits, an African retention that also fed into "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," the fantasy novel by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James. In his research, Bobbitt found some interesting things.
"[For example], to get rid of duppies, you should wear red underwear," Bobbitt said. "Another is to turn your clothes inside out. And I made my own up, which is that duppies are afraid of the number eight, because since seven is lucky, maybe eight is unlucky."
Songs unveiling themselves
As he crafted the narrative, Bobbitt teamed with John Cornelius II, a highly respected composer and arranger who was a longtime Marley fan.
"The songs almost unveiled themselves," Cornelius said. "We were able to find songs with the lyrics already there to cement themselves in the plot. We didn't have to twist things.
"Marley is such an icon that I was not really much concerned about people thinking I'd destroyed his songs," Cornelius said. "When people say they know someone's music, they're usually talking about one or two favorite songs."
Cornelius used "Running Away" as an example. Bob's original version is laid back and philosophical — "You can't run away from yourself." Cornelius speeds up the tempo, making it a soca song, and uses it in a chase scene.
Still, the burning question is how does one translate reggae into musical theater?
"You make a lot of hard choices," said Cornelius, who took up the challenge of rearranging and orchestrating songs and lyrics written for a very particular voice. "Typically with a soloist, a lot of keys are around the same registers. But with three-part harmony, you can move things around more without changing the entire flavor. You want to retain the essence of what makes the song live."
CTC's production has top-flight talent, including choreography by Juilliard-trained phenom Alanna Morris-Van Tassel, costumes by Trevor Bowen and music direction by Sanford Moore. The cast includes Lynnea Doublette, Nathan Barlow, Timotha Lanae and Kory LaQuess Pullam.
"It's so important that young people are continually invited, challenged and inspired to learn the fullness of the world," Brosius said. "For us to introduce reggae to young people, and to have them learn a little about the music, history and culture of an island where so many powers came in to shake and challenge the culture — and get shaken and challenged in turn by the culture and the people — that's very thrilling."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390