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Arts

'Marley' aims to capture the man, music and mission

More than three decades after Bob Marley's untimely death from cancer at the age of 36, his reggae songs continue to bridge ethnic and social lines worldwide, communicating messages of love, freedom, peace and justice. The Jamaican musician's dreadlocks-framed face, an image still emblazoned on many a T-shirt, remains as famous as his religious embrace of marijuana.

This bona fide icon now has another distinction. He's the subject of a musical.

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"Marley," written and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, is about to receive its premiere at Center Stage with a YouTube star in the title role and a large number of seasoned, New York-based actors filling out the cast.

In the works for more than a year, the musical will open with even more relevance than expected.

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"It could never have been predicted, but I feel the play is here in Baltimore at exactly the right time," says Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage. "The irony is sitting right on me, that we are doing a play about a hero calling for peace as his country [Jamaica] is falling apart, a man asking how do the oppressed raise their voices, how do the oppressed be heard. The seams are so aligned it's incredible."

It's too early to know if the musical has the legs to go from Baltimore to Broadway or beyond, but attention is likely to be paid. The show, which starts preview performances Thursday and officially opens May 13, is backed by outside investors. And the producers are headed by Chris Blackwell, the British founder of Island Records, the dynamic label that signed Marley in 1973.

"Why a musical about Bob Marley, why now? Because I think he stood for something," says Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Center Stage. "He belongs to a time when artists didn't just use their art for riches, but to contribute in some way. Some people may only think of him as someone smoking a lot of weed and having a lot of children. I think about the quality of the man and his music and his mission."

That's what Neville Garrick thinks about, too. Garrick was Marley's friend and art director, who created covers for several of the singer-songwriter's most acclaimed albums — including "Rastaman Vibration," "Exodus," "Kaya," "Survival," and "Exodus" — and designed distinctive lighting and backdrops for Marley's concerts.

The Los Angeles-based Garrick, who is portrayed by an actor in the musical, came to Baltimore last week to see rehearsals, a visit that coincided with the rioting that broke out in parts of the city.

"There is still so much trouble in the world," he said. "If you looked at the footage on CNN of what was happening here, you could say 'nothing change, nothing strange' [quoting from Marley's song "Survival"]. Bob's music is as relevant as it was 30 years ago. He never wrote throw-away lyrics; he wrote what I call splices of life."

A specific splice of Marley's life is the subject of the new musical — the years he spent in self-imposed exile in London. Marley, a peace-seeker caught between the right and left sides of volatile Jamaican politics, was the target of an assassination attempt in 1976 that wounded him, his wife and manager.

Kwei-Armah decided to concentrate on that difficult, but creative, period, rather than offer cradle-to-grave narrative. The show was never envisioned as the typical, feel-good, "Mamma Mia"-type jukebox musical.

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"I didn't want to do a singalong with Bob, just get out his greatest hits and away we go," Kwei-Armah says. "I tried to create the context for why this or that song was written. If you know Bob's music, you know he was speaking truth to power."

At least two dozen songs are woven into the show, most from the "Exodus" and "Kaya" albums made during those exile years, albums that, Kwei-Armah says, capture Marley's reflections on his mortality and the Jamaica he loved and lamented.

This marks the first time the artist's music has been used in a biographical stage work. That usage is through an agreement with Blue Mountain Music, a company founded by Blackwell that holds the global rights to the Marley song catalog, and Tuff Gong Pictures, which made the 2012 documentary "Marley."

The playwright was first approached by Blue Mountain Music about creating a stage project about Marley eight years ago. That did not pan out then, but the idea was proposed again early in 2014. This time, it stuck.

"Because I was dealing with an icon and with people who are still living, I had to do a hell of a lot of research," the British-born Kwei-Armah says. "I found revelations about Marley every single day. I discovered that when he was living in London, he shopped at Shepherd's Bush Market, the same outdoor market my mother and I shopped at."

Once the playwright zeroed in on those London exile years, the structure for the musical, which incorporates about two dozen songs, took shape.

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Kwei-Armah set out to capture the essence of Marley and celebrate his vintage reggae.

"He would probably look at music now with sadness," the playwright says. "Bob was interested in how to elevate the mind, not elevate the groin."

Over the past year, the script went through several drafts and two workshops (at one of them, "Chris Blackwell was sitting in the front row, two feet away from the actor playing him," Kwei-Armah says). Along the way, the playwright sent the script to Marley family members and friends for feedback.

One of those friends was Garrick, who called Kwei-Armah to pass along some suggestions, especially about words in the script that Marley and those in his orbit would not have used. One referred to a certain powerful plant.

"Neville told me that Bob never said 'weed,' but called it 'the herb,'" Kwei-Armah says. "Bob felt weeds were created for animals; the herb was created for man. I made the change. It takes a million decisions to write a play, and people will remember only your mistake."

The subject of marijuana could hardly be avoided in a work about Marley, who shared a Rastafarian viewpoint that placed "the herb" on an almost sacramental footing.

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"It's not hippy-dippy people smoking weed," says Saycon Sengbloh, who plays Marley's wife, Rita, in the musical. "Using marijuana is based on the Bible, according to the Rastafarian faith, which is a very spiritual religion and practice. And with more states discussing legalizing marijuana now, this is a very timely and topical play."

Sengbloh, who has performed on Broadway and on tour in such hits as "Motown," "Fela!," "Aida" and "Wicked," heard about auditions for "Marley" in New York and decided to try out — with one specific role in mind.

"The idea of being associated with anything about Bob Marley was very attractive to me," she says, "but I knew I wanted to play Rita Marley. Ever since I read her [2004] book, 'No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley,' I felt I would love to play this woman. Their lives and the music were so intertwined."

The actress, now in her 30s, became a Bob Marley fan at a young age.

"One of the first songs I heard, 'Soul Rebel,' I just liked right away," Sengbloh says. "I would play it over and over again. The ideas in his music energized me. The lyrics made me feel like a beautiful black person, strong and beautiful."

The Dutch, Suriname-born singer Mitchell Brunings, who plays the lead in "Marley," developed an early interest in reggae music when a cousin played for him a cassette of songs by several reggae artists, including UB40, Burning Spear and Marley.

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"I really got intrigued by the drum and bass," Brunings says. "I remember seeing a Marley concert aired live from Berlin on a German TV channel we got in Holland and there he was shaking his dreadlocks. I thought, OK, so this is Bob Marley. I didn't really get a deeper, spiritual meaning until I was in my 20s, when what he had to say about serious issues started hitting me. He kind of helped me get a perspective on the world."

Brunings went on to develop a career as a singer and was performing in a reggae tribute band when he auditioned for "The Voice," a reality show on Dutch TV. He came in second, but his performance of Marley's "Redemption Song" rocked the place. The viral video clip on YouTube has more than 38 million views.

One of those viewers was Kwei-Armah, who went to Holland to audition Brunings and decided he was right for the title role in the musical, even though the Dutch singer had no acting experience. Brunings has received coaching in acting throughout the rehearsal period.

"It's hard work, but it's fun," Brunings says. Adds Saycon: "He's getting better everyday. He's so open to the process."

Brunings does not look like Marley, especially in one key area.

"The good Lord has decided to take the hair back," the actor says, rubbing his thinly covered head, "so I'll be wearing a wig to get the dreadlocks."

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The actors have faced the extra challenge of learning Jamaican patois (Garrick gives them good marks). Kwei-Armah is mindful that the accents and lingo may be a problem for some theater-goers.

"Anything I think the audience won't understand, I will take out of Jamaican grammar and put it into English grammar," the playwright says.

Throughout the rehearsal process, he has been tweaking the script, readily substituting or subtracting lines.

"Our fearless leader is brilliant," Sengbloh says of Kwei-Armah. "You just feel you can trust his writing, his story-telling. And his discernment and lack of ego make him very open to suggestions. "

Adds the playwright, with a laugh: "Good actors make your lines better — and you still get the credit."

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To find those good actors, auditions were held in London, New York, Miami and Jamaica. About two dozen are in the ensemble, a large number for Center Stage; the company's most recent full-sized musical, "The Wiz," a few years ago, had eight fewer in the cast.

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Center Stage, which has an annual budget of $8.9 million, declined to provide details of the production's finances and investors. Kwei-Armah says the "show has been enhanced" with outside money. "I don't think I could have validated this to the board otherwise," he says. "We couldn't have done this on our annual budget. Hell, no."

The company has sent one musical to Broadway, James Magruder's "Triumph of Love," which had a short run in 1997. Given the lasting popularity of Marley — the singer's Facebook page has more than 74 million likes — and the decent track record for musicals built around songs by a single artist or group, this new show is bound to be checked out by theater insiders.

"The enormity of the project is only just landing on me," Kwei-Armah says. "In the last few days, I thought, oh my God, I'm actually doing this, and people are going to be interested in this all over the world and have questions about everything."

For Garrick, who traveled to London with Marley at the start of the exile years and who founded the Bob Marley Museum in Jamaica, there is no mystery to the singer's continued hold on the public worldwide.

"When I first heard Bob and the Wailers, they opened for Marvin Gaye, and Bob just blew him away," Garrick says. "At that moment I knew how big he was going to be. He still is. The only time you're dead is when they speak of you no more. So Bob is very much alive."

And about to sing again.


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