John Legend's Philly connections tie 'Underground' to 'La La Land'

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John Legend portrays renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass in “Underground.” Legend is an executive producer of the series.

PASADENA, Calif. -- There's a line that runs from WGN America's Underground Railroad drama Underground, which launches its second season on Wednesday, all the way to the Hollywood musical La La Land.

And you could say it originates in Philadelphia.

Because that's where multi-hyphenate John Legend, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, made the connections that led to Get Lifted Film Co., whose recent producing projects, besides Underground and La La Land, include the Barack and Michelle Obama romance Southside with You and Turn Me Loose, the Off-Broadway play about comedian Dick Gregory, starring Scandal's Joe Morton.

In a joint interview in January with Wynnewood's Mike Jackson, who,  with Legend, is also a producer on the Broadway run of August Wilson's Jitney, Legend explained how the two  met and became friends more than 15 years ago.

Jackson "went to school with a mutual friend of ours [Ty Stiklorius] who I went to college with, and he had known her since they were kids. And then I went to college with her and sang a capella with her. Now, we all work together as partners in Get Lifted," Legend said.

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Mike Jackson (left) and John Legend at a screening of "Underground." 

"We’ve been really selective about the type of stuff we get involved in," said Jackson, a graduate of Lower Merion High School and Pennsylvania State University who got his start in television working at Philadelphia's Banyan Productions as a producer on TLC's A Dating Story.

"We tend to do a lot of stuff that’s around the things that I have read about and cared about for a long time, like African American history and politics and social change and social justice," Legend said. They also look for "things that are around music, and La La Land obviously is a great example of that. We try to stick to subjects that we can be passionate about."

One of those passions is Underground, a thriller set in pre-Civil War America whose stars include Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Christopher Meloni, Alano Miller, and Jessica De Gouw.

The setting may be period, but the music is often contemporary; a choice, Legend said, that "really complemented the action and added urgency ... and kind of took the show off of the museum wall."

Legend contributed an original song, "In America," to the premiere. He'll also play writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the April 5 episode.

He wrote the song while working on Darkness and Light, the album he released in December. "I was writing more songs than I ended up using on the album, and we felt like this was perfect for our show, because it kind of explores the duality of America and American history, where we’ve always kind of had these ideals of liberty and equality and justice for all, a place where anyone can come and be free and have the opportunity to pursue the American dream," he said.

"We’ve always had those ideals, and a lot of them were discussed, and written down, in Philadelphia. But as we know, at that same time, we had a lot of slaves, we had a lot of injustice, we had women who weren’t able to vote for centuries in this country. And so a lot of times we haven’t lived up to those ideals."

Jackson stressed that he and Legend are involved in much more than the music of Underground ("We're part of the entire process"), but as an actor, Legend has tended to stick close to music. He played Stevie Wonder in the Philadelphia-set show about Bandstand, American Dreams, and a successful musician in La La Land. So where does Douglass fit in?

"He was a pianist, believe it or not," Legend said.

Not that we'll likely see that much of him: "I’m just in one episode, so don’t get any high hopes for a multi-episode role for me, at least in this season. But what is exciting about this season is that ... [Underground Railroad conductor] Harriet Tubman, played by Aisha Hinds, has a very significant role."

"People are going to be blown away by her," Jackson said of Hinds, who makes an entrance worthy of an action hero in Wednesday's episode.

"She was real live superhero, about as close as we come in America to seeing a real live superhero," Legend said.