Words and Music: Two Shows That Do It Right

I had a rare experience at the theater last week. On two successive nights I saw musicals that really worked, mainly because they managed to weld songs and story in an organic way that musicals always strive for but rarely achieve. Yet they could hardly be more different. 

The Harder They Come, which has just opened at the downtown Public Theater, is based on the 1972 film that starred, and featured the music of, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. Critically acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) has adapted the story, about a Jamaican country boy who comes to the capital of Kingston with dreams of recording a hit song, and laced it with a potpourri of reggae numbers — not just familiar songs from the film (“You Can Get It If You Really Want”), but more by Cliff and other reggae artists, and even a couple of new songs written by Parks herself. The music never stops the action, but seems entirely of a piece with it: most of the songs are either done in performance (like the title number) or presented in snippets, to embellish and propel the story. It all flows marvelously.   

Natey Jones plays the wannabe singer with a thousand-watt smile and a surfeit of sunny energy, even as he runs up against a powerful record producer, a hypocritical preacher, and a criminal drug ring promising him fast money. Parks has sanded off some of the rough edges of the scrappy ‘70s-indie film, and Tony Taccone and Sergio Trujillo’s staging is pretty rather than gritty. But the upbeat vibe seems perfectly in keeping both with the fable-like story and with the demands of a stage musical. 

The Harder They Come Is debuting in the same off-Broadway theater where A Chorus Line and Hamilton got their start, and if it weren’t for some surprisingly tepid reviews (including an outright pan from the New York Times), I would be predicting a Broadway transfer and a long, award-laden run. I still hope it happens: this is a happy show that should please a lot of people.

Parade —the 1998 musical about the lynching of Leo Frank, now back in a Broadway revival — is by no means a happy show. Indeed, I recall the original production as being rather heavy going. But Michael Arden’s new, slimmed-down production (first staged in a concert version at City Center last fall) seems a startling transformation.   

Frank (for those who aren’t familiar with this shocking piece of Southern history) was the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory who in 1913 was convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of a 14-year-old factory girl. Following a two-year national outcry over what seemed a gross miscarriage of justice, Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, a move that prompted a band of local vigilantes to spirit Frank out of prison one night and lynch him.  

It’s a story of anti-Semitism, political chicanery, press demagoguery, and the stubborn legacy of the Civil War in the South. That’s a lot to cram into a two-and-a-half hour show, with songs. And Alfred Uhry’s book does, of necessity, elide and simplify much of the complex story. The trial scenes, in particular, are so truncated as to make the verdict even more inexplicable than it was. (Steve Oney’s definitive book on the case, And the Dead Shall Rise, gives a far more nuanced, and sometimes disturbing, account.) And the love story between Leo and his faithful wife Lucille that moves to the center of the story in the second act seems to hew more to Broadway romantic convention than real life. 

But the bones of the grim story are there, told crisply and clearly (with old photos of the real-life characters projected when their stage counterparts appear), without pulling punches but without undue sensationalism either. Ben Platt, grown up a bit from his Tony-winning performance in Dear Evan Hansen, is a compelling, if oddly detached, Leo Frank, and the rest of the cast matches his intensity and vocal power. 

But what most struck me is how much better Jason Robert Brown’s score sounds than it did 25 years ago. Perhaps it’s the spare staging and Arden’s fleet, unfussy direction that has brought it to the forefront.  The songs have enough variety (a few ragtime-inflected upbeat numbers amid the somber ballads and hymns) to keep the show from sinking under the weight of its sobering themes. With a score that, once again, seems entirely integral to the story, Parade has finally found its voice.

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