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John Legend and Lynn Nottage are adapting ‘Imitation of Life’ for the stage

A private reading of the musical, directed by Liesl Tommy, was held in April.

Lynn Nottage, John Legend and Liesl Tommy (Credit; courtesy of Polk & Co.)

Universal Theatrical Group (UTG) has announced that a musical, based on Fannie Hurst’s novel and subsequent Universal Picture films “Imitation of Life,” is in development. An industry reading of the adaptation (also titled “Imitation of Life”) was held in New York City in April, featuring a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage and music and lyrics by 12-time Grammy winner John Legend. Tony Award nominee Liesl Tommy directed the reading.

Nottage, the only woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, is also a three-time Tony-nominated playwright and book writer. Her Broadway credits include “Sweat,” “Clyde’s” and “MJ.” Legend, who has achieved EGOT status, received a 2017 Tony for producing “Jitney.” He has also served as a producer on “Ain’t Too Proud,” and wrote original songs for Broadway’s “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Tommy received a Tony nomination for her direction of “Eclipsed.”

“Imitation of Life,” originally published in 1933, was then made into a feature film by Universal Pictures in 1934. A remake of the film was done in 1959. The first movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and added to the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress due to its cultural significance.

The plot — set during the 1920s in Atlantic City — follows Delilah Johnston, a Black woman navigating a simultaneous friendship and business partnership while her white-passing daughter, Peola, is determined to build a new life for herself. The musical is aiming for Broadway.

“When I met with Universal Theatrical Group to talk about a possible collaboration, the only title I wanted to discuss was ‘Imitation of Life,’” Tommy said 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 theater.”

“To my mind,” Tommy continued, “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 retelling. 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.”

“Imitation of Life” is being produced by Universal Theatrical Group, the live theater division of Universal Pictures, and Get Lifted Film Co.