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Janet toots Horne for Storyline, ABC

Singer to record new takes on classic tunes

Stormy weather and the small screen are in the forecast for pop diva Janet Jackson.

Storyline Entertainment’s Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, along with ABC and Sony Pictures Television, have signed the Grammy-winning crooner-thesp to star in a two-hour musical biopic about another singer-actress: Lena Horne. Roy Campanella Jr. will direct and is also attached as an exec producer.

Rather than lip synch to Horne’s songs — as usually happens in musical biopics — Jackson will record new takes on the singer’s classic tunes, choosing from a discography which includes such standards as “Stormy Weather” and “Just One of those Things.”

Jackson also will serve as exec producer of the untitled project, which is being written by Shirley Pierce. Horne’s autobiography “Lena,” written with Richard Schickel, will serve as the basis for the script.

Pic will delve into Horne’s oft-turbulent career, which involved breaking numerous race boundaries and a brush with the anti-communist blacklist, as well as a successful feature career.

Storyline senior VP of TV Dave Mace will serve as a producer on the pic, while Sony Pictures TV exec VP of movies and minis Helen Verno will oversee the project for the studio.

“I can’t think of more ideal casting,” ABC longform topper Quinn Taylor told Daily Variety. “Janet Jackson and Lena Horne — it’s like peanut butter and jelly.”

Jackson said she was “very excited” about playing Horne.

“She is someone I’ve admired my whole life,” Jackson said, adding that she was glad “to be collaborating and producing the movie” with Storyline.

Zadan and Meron first met with Jackson after the success of “Chicago,” which the duo produced. Jackson — whose feature credits include “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” and “Poetic Justice” — was a fan of the tuner and wanted to meet with the Storyline toppers.

That meeting led to a discussion of Jackson’s desire to bring the story of Horne to life. As it happened, ABC had already optioned a Horne biopic from Campanella.

Zadan and Meron knew about the ABC project and immediately called Taylor to see if he was interested. It didn’t take long for a marriage to happen.

Name recognition

“When they said her name… it wasn’t a question of can we do the deal, it was we have to make this happen,” Taylor said, noting that the addition of Zadan and Meron made the project all the more appealing.

“Craig and Neil’s talent relations are virtually unrivaled,” he said. “And all these teams coming together makes the star-power of this project somewhat mind-boggling.”

Zadan — who with Meron produced ABC’s Emmy-winning Judy Garland mini — said the Horne pic will “let Jackson shine” as a thesp.

“She’s an actress that will excite people and surprise them in every conceivable way with her emotion and depth,” he said. “The idea is even more thrilling to us because Janet will recreate the Lena Horne sound and do all of her own singing.”

Educational opportunity

Verno said that in addition to being a star vehicle for Jackson, the Horne pic will also serve as a way to educate younger viewers about the race struggles of the last century.

“This is an opportunity for a new generation to be exposed not only to Ms. Horne’s music, but to understand her struggle to overcome the racial prejudices she faced as a black performer in America,” Verno said.

Taylor said the script for the Horne pic is “a very honest portrayal of her story. She was a very complicated but straightforward woman who was a mother trying to achieve her career goals and keep her family together. She understood brilliantly that the ends justified the means.”

Exec said Jackson’s own experiences as a singer will “add a soulfulness to the project that only a performer could bring to it.

“She understands what it means to stand on stage and throw your heart out to an audience,” Taylor added.

There’s no anticipated airdate for the pic yet, though a May 2004 premiere wouldn’t be impossible. Taylor, however, said he’s willing to wait as long as necessary to ensure the project is “perfect.”

TV experience

Jackson is no stranger to TV, though most of her roles came before her success as a solo singer. This will be her first starring role in a dramatic TV project.

She first gained attention as an actress by playing abused girl Penny on “Good Times”; her first appearance on the laffer was showcased this summer as part of the Museum of TV & Radio’s ongoing festival of Gen X programming.

She latter appeared as a recurring character on “Diff’rent Strokes” and had a regular role on NBC’s “Fame.”

Deal for Jackson was brokered by Eric Kranzler of Management 360 and Roger Davies.

Storyline is currently prepping “The Reagans” for CBS and has its first sitcom, “It’s All Relative,” bowing Oct. 1 on ABC.

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