EGOT winner John Legend and Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage are developing a stage musical adaptation of the 1933 novel Imitation of Life. Liesl Tommy is attached to direct, with Universal Theatrical Group and Legend's Get Lifted Film Co. producing. A private industry reading was held in NYC April 24–28.
The project is the brainchild of Tommy. “When I met with Universal Theatrical Group to talk about a possible collaboration, the only title I wanted to discuss was Imitation of Life," says Tommy in a statement. "I’d long been a fan of the book, and I knew there was a passionate, contemporary, and newly relevant adaptation of this story uniquely suited to musical theatre. To my mind the only collaborators for this beautifully complex, wholly American story are Lynn Nottage and John Legend; thankfully, they agreed to join me immediately in bringing their creativity and immense talents to this re-telling. We are thrilled to partner with UTG as we turn a whole new lens on Imitation of Life, using this great American art form to illuminate and uplift Black life."
Written by Fannie Hurst, the novel traces a family living in Atlantic City, New Jersey at the turn of the century. Weaving together stories of a single, white mother struggling to provide for her family in a sexist world and a Black nanny whose daughter's skin allows her to pass as white, the story digs into themes of gender, race, and class. The title has been adapted for the screen twice, both times by Universal Pictures. A 1934 adaptation starred Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2005. A 1959 remake starred Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, and was itself added to the United States National Film Registry in 2015.
The ostensibly Broadway-aimed project would be the first major production on the Main Stem for Legend, who became an EGOT winner in 2018 with his Tony win as a producer on Manhattan Theatre Club's Jitney. He also supplied a song to 2017's SpongeBob SquarePants and starred in the title role of Jesus Christ Superstar for NBC's 2018 live TV production.
Nottage made her Broadway debut with 2017's Pulitzer-winning and Tony-nominated Sweat. Her play Clyde's made a Broadway bow in 2021 via Second Stage Theater, and she penned the book to jukebox biomusical MJ The Musical in 2022.
Tommy made her Broadway debut in 2016 directing Eclipsed by Danai Gurira and starring Lupita Nyong'o. It made history as the first play on Broadway created by and starring all Black women. Tommy was nominated for a Tony Award for her direction of Eclipsed.
Universal Theatre Group is currently represented on Broadway with Wicked, they are also developing the Death Becomes Her musical. Get Lifted Film Co. is led by Legend and Tony-winning producer Mike Jackson. Get Lifted produced the 2017 Broadway revival of Jitney, the musical film La La Land, and is currently producing Phantom, a reimagination of Phantom of the Opera.