Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, known to most as Motown legends Ashford and Simpson, have been working on a musical-theater adaptation of E. Lynn Harris's book Invisible Life — about African-American gay men living dual lives — for many years now. In 2007, Stephen Holden of the New York Times noted that during their Feinstein's residency they performed two numbers from the unfinished musical: “This Is Where We Meet” (a number set in a gay bar) and “Invisible Life” (an anthem celebrating human diversity). He also noted that Simpson "remarked that creating a show is much more difficult than she and Mr. Ashford had ever imagined. It was a challenge, she said, to balance the elements of a story dealing with sexual confusion, spiritual faith and the church."
Now it seems the musical — which has music and lyrics by Ashford and Simpson and additional lyrics by Stanley Bennett Clay — has finally reached a finished state, so that it will have an Actors Equity-approved showcase at Harlem's Apollo Theatre June 25-30. As Playbill reported last month, Proteus Spann and Javon Johnson, who collaborated on the musical's book, are also directting the showcase, which is titled, Invisible Life the Musical: Live Your Life In Your Truth.
Spann has been trying to produce a movie and stage version of Harris's works for years. In 2013, he told The Hollywood Reporter that after Harris died, his mother put a stop to the projects, claiming that Spann had no legal rights to the books. During that time Ashford passed away in 2011, and Spann struggled through legal battles. But the projects remained important to the producer.
“Invisible Life influenced me so much when I read it. It was my life. It answered a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer,” Spann told THR. “Being a bisexual or gay man, it was difficult to figure out who to go to. Do you go to your parents? To the church?”
The book was controversial when it was originally published in the early 1990s, but it ultimately became a bestseller and Harris wrote many other sentimental novels that questioning thorny subjects in the African-American community, including religion, gay identity, and AIDS. The musical's source material tackles issues of centers on:
"Raymond, a college football player, [who] dreams of a future as a lawyer and family man with his childhood sweetheart Sela, but is seduced into a Down-Low romance by star Quarterback, Basil Hernderson. Pressured by his Father to continue his NFL legacy, Raymond escapes to New York City and falls madly in love with a Broadway Diva, Nicole. Raymond's scandal-reunion with Basil, and fashionista best friends Kyle and JJ, threatens his 'Perfect World' and forces Raymond to 'Live his Life in Truth…' "
Harris, who lived in Atlanta, died in 2009 from heart disease at the age of 54. As Bruce Weber wrote in his obituary, "Harris, who was openly gay but who lived for many years in denial or shame or both over that fact, was able to draw on his own experiences to make credible the emotional conflicts of his characters, and his readers, many of them women, were drawn to his books because they addressed issues that were often surreptitiously pertinent to their own lives."
Now we'll be eager to see if the musical version of his stories is able to do the same.