The music is unmistakable. A quick drum lick pattern introduces a characteristic, throbbing beat that says steel drums and a relaxed island atmosphere. The words insist on a benevolent compliance: “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be alright!”
The song is “Three Little Birds,” originally recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. It is just one of the distinctive tunes by the late Reggae artist Bob Marley adapted into the new children’s musical Three Little Birds, now preparing for its world premiere at Adventure Theatre/MTC , March 15-April 14, 2013.
Set in Jamaica, Three Little Birds takes a shy child named Ziggy on a journey to find out what’s outside his door, while celebrating the diverse Jamaican culture.
Some of Bob Marley’s well-known and lesser known songs serve as the score for the story adapted from a children’s book by Cedella Marley.
Adventure Theatre/MTC’s artistic director Michael J. Bobbitt’s quick assessment of the score for Three Little Birds: “It’s just fun. This is music that will make you smile.”
Choosing the music of Bob Marley as the basis for a children’s theatre score: Sounds crazy, no? We sat down with Michael J. Bobbitt for a look at the music and the creation of this new production for the children’s theatre based in Glen Echo Park, Maryland.
Bob Marley and children’s theatre are not exactly synonymous.
(Chuckling) To be honest, I had the same reaction when the idea was suggested to me. I was like, “Hmm … Bob Marley and children’s theatre?” Then I started looking up his music and his words, I found it was perfect. This is exactly what I want. There is something universal about the rhythm of Reggae.
You know, as a children’s theatre, I’m trying to stretch the imagination of the kids and also stretch the quality of the work they’re hearing. So for me, it’s a natural fit.
The title song, “Three Little Birds” has a childlike simplicity, and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” kind of vibe.
Oh, yes! The first thing about it is it is a narrative song, so there’s already a bit of a story to that song. Two, you have birds, you have the sun, you have the great message that everything’s going to be alright. And I think it works perfectly for a kid’s story. The shape of the play is bookended by the narrative in the “Three Little Birds” song. You wake up in the morning and the three little birds are singing on the doorstep. And there’s a sun. I made up this journey for the lead character in the play, whose name is Ziggy, appropriately. [Bob Marley’s oldest son is David “Ziggy” Marley, a musician in his own right.]
How about the rest of the score and the story?
Assembling the score was really about editing which songs don’t work. I knew that I wanted to use most of the popular songs, the ones everyone knows. I listened to all of the songs and then figured out which ones were first kid-friendly and, secondly, which ones could fit into a story. “One Love” is in there, as a major montage moment in the show. I have “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” “Don’t Rock My Boat,” “Is This Love?” – literally all of his major hit songs are in there and some of his lesser known works too, but they really serve the play very well.
There was also the challenge of taking Reggae songs and making them work, musically in the show, not just fitting them into a new story, correct?
Reggae is very specific. It uses a very limited number of chords, limited rhythm and limited tempo. It is very familiar and has a kind of groove to it that everyone knows. I passed that on to my collaborator, John Cornelius. I’ve been writing with him for sixteen years and he’s a brilliant arranger. I said to him, ‘Hey, how about a new challenge? Take these Bob Marley songs and make them into musical theatre.” And he was able to find some beautiful variety and make these amazing vocal arrangements. The way these songs merged into musical theatre is superb and it is very exciting. The cast of six at times sounds like there are twenty people.
How was the process going from taking the songs and Bob Marley’s daughter’s book to create the adaptation?
The idea of this show came about was just to use Bob Marley’s greatest songs.[When we began working on the show] I didn’t know Cedella Marley had written that book. I reached out to a representative from the Marley estate. They mentioned the book, I read it and thought it was perfect, it’s really a beautifully illustrated book based on the lyrics to “Three Little Birds.” It seemed to make sense to adapt the book, use his songs and then make a new story. I sent the Marley estate the synopsis and then the script and they very much liked it. They have been extremely supportive of it.
How did your new story form for the show itself?
When I started thinking about the play, I needed to come up with a story that was appropriate for kids and having a kid as a lead character is always a good thing. And then you figure out a kid-sized problem; most kid’s plays are kid-sized problems. [For example,] You can write a whole play about a kid learning to tie their shoes and the drama that ensues from that.
I also did a lot of research on Bob Marley and Jamaica and found all these fantastic folk legends and myths – these spiritual beings. There was the history of Jamaica, as well. I also wanted to celebrate the culture of Jamaica, which is made up of many different cultures: Spanish, English, Indian, Chinese and African cultures. They are all intertwined in Jamaica and make this beautiful melting pot of culture.
The music helps to connect the cultural celebration …
The songs just kind of naturally fit in there. There is one section of the play where we celebrate all the cultures at the same time and how they influenced Jamaica with the song “One Love,” which they sing in various languages.” It’s just a beautiful, beautiful moment. The opening number is a mash-up of “Jammin'” and “Roots, Rock, Reggae.” There’s another moment in the show when we mash up “Is This Love?” with “Don’t Rock My Boat.”
Three Little Birds
March 15 – April 14, 2013
Adventure Theatre MTC
7300 MacArthur Blvd
Glen Echo Park,
Glen Echo, MD
Ages 4 and up
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Oh, yes, the cast has gone through lots of vocal coaching on the Jamaican accent but also because we are lifting up the other cultures; they are doing vocal work on Swahili, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish. It’s been a lot of work for the cast.
What do you want audiences to take away from Three Little Birds?
My hope is that it’s not too prescriptive; it’s really about having fun. If there is a message in this play: it’s really about get up from your seat, get out of your house and enjoy life — which is a very Jamaican lesson. And it definitely relates to kids today who spend a lot of time in front of a TV, or their computers. This show is about getting out there to do stuff. Get out there and play and have a good time.
And one of our little secrets at Adventure Theatre is to make sure we try to entertain the adults. They make up more than 50 percent of our audiences. And if they are not entertained, they aren’t going to come back with their kids. We want to make sure the art is of high quality and the material appeals to them as well as their children.