Geraldine Connor: The tropical storm of energy behind new reggae musical

Locally, she's something of a legend. Arts reporter Nick Ahad met Geraldine Connor, back in her home city of Leeds.

The last time I saw Geraldine Connor her long dreadlocks were grey and she was dressed in black. At the time she was directing the enormous stage production of Carnival Messiah at Harewood House and the blazing bright colours of the show outshone everything else around it.

This time Connor is in the rather less colourful surrounds of West Yorkshire Playhouse. She, however, is back to her bright best.

A multicoloured long flowing dress is topped off with red streaks through her hair and she looks fighting fit.

Connor is well known in cultural circles in a diverse list of places: London, Jamaica, Haiti and across Yorkshire.

As well as being the creative brain and energy behind Carnival Messiah, she holds a PhD in cultural studies, was a lecturer at Leeds University for over a decade and taught at the Queen's Royal College.

Over lunch at the Playhouse the ethnomusicologist also reveals a previously unknown entry on her CV: backing singer to reggae star Jimmy Cliff.

"Oh yes, back in the Seventies," says Connor in her Caribbean-infused Leeds accent.

"There were three of us and we were known as the Sunbeams. There was another group of three called the Ladybirds, they were all blonde, we were like their opposites – all black."

To anyone who knows her, and across Yorkshire there are many, if the Jimmy Cliff connection comes as news, it won't come as a surprise.

Connor gives off the kind of energy that makes it easy to believe she must have at some point sung backing vocals for a reggae star – why not?

It is why Connor was a perfect choice when the West Yorkshire Playhouse announced a shake-up of its board, bringing in a whole raft of new faces to lead the theatre.

She is one of five new board members of a management team slimmed down from 25 to 12.

"A new day has dawned for the West Yorkshire Playhouse," says Connor.

"We are working now, right now, on a new vision for the Playhouse and new ways to bring in new audiences, recapture the old audiences and restore the theatre to – I don't want to say former glories – but get back to the glorious days we had here."

Those plans will take some time to take shape and with people like Connor, theatre director and producer Alan Dix and head of continuing series for ITV Drama Steve November, the future could be looking very bright indeed for the theatre.

For now, though, Connor is back at the Playhouse with one particular aim in mind – bringing a flavour of the Caribbean to Leeds.

As composer, musical supervisor and vocal director for The Harder they Come, she has once again had a hand in a hit show with the sounds and sights of the Caribbean at its heart.

The musical is based on the 1972 movie, which brought Jimmy Cliff to international attention and is credited with having introduced a generation to the sounds of reggae music from the Caribbean.

The original director of the movie, Perry Henzell, wrote a new version of the show which has been brought to the stage in this new production.

The musical tells the story of a country boy who makes for the bright lights of Kingston, Jamaica, with high hopes of becoming a reggae star.

When the harsh reality of the music scene drives him into a fast and furious life as an outlaw, he would rather die than give up his dream.

The remounted musical version came about when Connor and long-time collaborator Jan Ryan were in Haiti rehearsing another Playhouse sell-out show she was involved with, Vodou Nation.

They met with Henzell, who told them about the new musical she had written based on the movie.

"It was a fantastic script, that was the first thing that attracted me," she says.

"It felt very authentic, very Caribbean. A lot of the performers in the show are from Jamaica, because there is a lot of patois in the script – but that doesn't mean for a moment that it isn't something everyone can follow."

When Connor has a hunch about something, she tends to be proven right and The Harder they Come arrives at the Playhouse having established itself as a success in London and in America.

It also remains a potent cultural expression of issues of social exclusion, poverty and inner-city breakdown making it, Connor says, as relevant today as ever it was.

Connor says: "I've done all the music, I was responsible for the composition, for all the singing and the new arrangements. I've also written a new song which we use to end the first act. It is using the music from the film but with my new arrangements. It's a project I'm very involved with."

Producer, Jan Ryan of UK Arts International says: "What's really special is the total integrity with which the show has been mounted.

"It is the first genuine black Caribbean musical to be staged in the UK. The show has an authenticity and truthfulness which energises audiences as much as the performers."

Combine that with Connor's energy and you have what should be

quite a show.

West Yorkshire Playhouse, June 1 to 5.