A new musical built around the songs of reggae legend Bob Marley. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Wait. A children’s musical? With characters named Ziggy (as in Bob’s son and grandson) and Cedella (his daughter)? Are you kidding?
Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo, Maryland isn’t kidding about his new project. With the support of Cedella Marley, upon whose book Three Little Birds the eponymous musical is based, Bobbitt has set out to introduce Marley’s work to a new generation and to delight their parents with a bit of ska inside the Beltway. In fact, Bobbitt says, this is one parents will enjoy as much as – “perhaps even more than” – children. But there’s plenty in this world premiere for every age.
The set up, drawing inspiration from Marley’s sweet-natured hit “Three Little Birds,” finds the young Jamaican boy Ziggy so glued to the television weather report that he is afraid to venture out and explore his beautiful island home. He’s eventually persuaded to do so by Nansi, a neighborhood girl who plays the friendly trickster, and aided by Doctor Bird, Ziggy’s pet, who is endowed with mystical and possibly magical powers. Both are recognizable Jamaican figures (the Doctor Bird is the island’s national bird), as is Duppy, the dreadlocked evil spirit who wants to steal Ziggy’s hair. In fact, Bob Marley wrote a song called “Duppy Conqueror” in reference to the well-known Caribbean tradition of “duppies,” or evil spirits. Without giving away any plot points, it may well be said that Ziggy is a Duppy conqueror himself in Three Little Birds.
While the musical, adapted by Bobbitt with additional music and lyrics by longtime collaborator John L. Cornelius II, is set in Jamaica, its themes are universal.
“It’s very much a modern-day fairy tale,” Bobbitt says. “It’s really about a shy kid who is afraid to go outside and play. That has resonance for a lot of us. Kids sitting in front of the TV, not getting outside, seeing the world, and discovering things.”
Like many fairy-tale heroes, Ziggy goes on a journey of self-discovery, aided by his friends and by uplifting settings of Marley’s music. Adults will recognize the familiar lines and melodies of “One Love,” “Roots Rock Reggae,” “Is This Love,” and the title song, “Three Little Birds,” among others. The latter is a particular favorite of Cedella Marley and the basis for her children’s book.
“[Three Little Birds] is one of Dad’s sweetest songs, a song for everybody,” Cedella says. “It’s geared toward children with its message of love, no matter what hardships we go through. The message is in it. Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause everything will be all right.”
Cedella Marley and Michael Bobbitt agree that the message is an important one in a time of increasing stress upon children and the allure of various kinds of technology that keep children from traditional outdoor activities and exercise.
“Little birds don’t worry about a thing,” Bobbitt says, “and all of us spend too much time worrying.” Bobbitt adds that, as he juggles multiple responsibilities as the artistic director of a vibrant children’s theater, “I’m finding that’s becoming my mantra. Don’t worry. It’ll be all right!”
But Three Little Birds is not a message-driven show. It’s about kicking back and enjoying the colors, culture, and rhythms of the island nation. At one point, Bobbitt and Cornelius do a “mash-up” with Marley’s song “One Love,” using it as a kind of musical glue for a brief history of Jamaican culture – including Spanish, African, Indian, English, and Chinese influences. Characters in the play take on the roles of birds, who tell the stories of their respective peoples.
And just who are the birds of the title? Cedella Marley suggests that, to her father, they were symbolic representations of the I Threes, a female reggae group featuring her mother, Rita Marley, that provided back up vocals for Bob Marley and The Wailers. But to Michael Bobbitt, they are closer to the voices of inspiration and delight that greet a wakening child in the morning. “Don’t worry,” they tweet. “Everything will be all right.” Really.
Cedella Marley says the singer’s family is excited and honored by the world premiere at Adventure Theatre/MTC. “I was flattered,” she remembers, when Bobbitt brought the idea to her. “I called Ziggy [her brother, also a musician] and said, ‘Guess what? We’re characters in this play!’ We’re so happy with what Michael has done in adapting my book and bringing Daddy’s song to a new generation. He would be smiling from ear to ear.”
Which is what Michael Bobbitt hopes for his audiences in Glen Echo over the next month. After all, inside the Beltway who doesn’t want to be assured that “everything will be all right.”