Nat Geo and Imagine have found their Queen of Soul. Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning artist and actress Cynthia Erivo (Harriet, The Color Purple) has been tapped to star as Aretha Franklin in the next installment of Nat Geo’s Emmy-winning global anthology series Genius: Aretha, from Imagine Television and Fox 21 TV Studios.
Billed as the first-ever, definitive and only authorized scripted limited series on the life of Franklin, Genius: Aretha will begin filming in November for a spring 2020 premiere on National Geographic channels in 172 countries and 43 languages.
As previously announced, Suzan-Lori Parks, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog, will be executive producer and showrunner of the series. Music mogul and longtime Franklin collaborator Clive Davis as well as Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman also executive produce.
“Aretha Franklin has been a source of inspiration for me since I was a little girl,” said Erivo. “Her strength, passion and soul are evident in her everlasting legacy, not only as a transcendent artist, but as a humanitarian and civil rights icon. To have the opportunity to bring her legacy to life and show the fullness of her being, her humanity and brilliance, is an honor. What I know and have learned about what my voice, as an artist, can do and the power in it has been highly influenced by Franklin. I feel privileged and excited to be a part of the sharing of her genius.”
The production will feature many of Franklin’s biggest hits from the Warner Music catalogue, including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “Baby I Love You.” In addition, the series will feature Franklin’s performances of “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Erivo will also be performing songs from Franklin’s rich catalogue. (You can watch her sing as part of an Aretha Franklin tribute below.)
“Cynthia Erivo blew me away. Not only is she an incredible and bona fide star, but she is soulful and has tremendous depth as a musical artist,” said Imagine’s Brian Grazer. “Cynthia is the perfect person to portray the profoundly human story behind the genius that is Aretha.”
The third season of the anthology series will explore Franklin’s musical genius and incomparable career, as well as the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she has had on music and culture around the world. Grammy Award winner Franklin was a gospel prodigy and outspoken civil rights champion and is widely considered to be the greatest singer of the past 50 years, receiving countless honors throughout her career.
“For Genius to honor Aretha is a great affirmation of her legacy, and Cynthia Erivo is an extraordinary talent with an amazing voice!,” said. Franklin’s niece Sabrina Owens.
Erivo is a Tony-, Daytime Emmy- and Grammy-winning actress and singer who burst onto West End and Broadway stages in The Color Purple. (Erivo and the cast of The Color Purple won a Daytime Emmy for their performance on NBC’s Today.) On the big screen, Erivo will next star in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, in the title role as heroic abolitionist Harriet Tubman. In TV, she will star in HBO’s The Outsider, based on the Stephen King novel. She will also star alongside Daisy Ridley and David Oyelowo in the sci-fi thriller Chaos Walking, from director Doug Liman, and in John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack alongside Orlando Bloom, Freida Pinto and Leslie Odom Jr. In addition, Erivo is set to executive produce and star in Warner Bros.’ musical take on the American folk tale of Rip Van Winkle.
“The fabulously talented Cynthia Erivo is dream casting to play iconic musical genius Aretha Franklin,” said Carolyn Bernstein, EVP, global scripted content and documentary films, National Geographic. “On the heels of her Tony Award-winning turn in ‘The Color Purple’ and breakout performance in upcoming feature film ‘Harriet,’ we can’t wait to see Cynthia bring her fierceness to the role as the Queen of Soul.”
Erivo is repped by United Talent Agency, ID, Authentic Talent & Literary Management, and Pekioff Mahan.
Imagine is partnering with Warner Music Group for this third season, which will again be executive produced by Imagine’s Grazer, Ron Howard and Francie Calfo. Davis and Kallman have also joined as executive producers. Returning executive producers include Ken Biller, Gigi Pritzker and Rachel Shane, and Sam Sokolow. Diana Son joins as executive producer. Imagine’s Anna Culp serves as producer alongside Peter Afterman.