Kathie Lee Gifford Takes Evangelism To Broadway

Kathie Lee Gifford is best-known to millions of people as the perky morning TV host, who spent years paired with Regis Philbin and is now on the Today show. But Gifford has written the script and lyrics for a new Broadway musical, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson. How will Gifford fare in the pressure cooker of Broadway?

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Kathie Lee Gifford has had several careers - as a television personality, a singer and an actress. Now, she's added another credit to her resume. Last night, a musical she wrote opened on Broadway. It's called "Scandalous"; and it's about the flamboyant, controversial evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Jeff Lunden tells us more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In the 1930s, several years after her ministry was rocked by scandal, Aimee Semple McPherson brought her crusade to Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: I have come to Broadway - the mecca of sin, the citadel of worldliness.

LUNDEN: In show biz terms, she flopped. McPherson packed it in after only a week. Kathie Lee Gifford certainly hopes her biographical musical about the polarizing preacher, packs them in for a while to come. And she's been using her pulpit - the "Today Show" - to tout it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC "TODAY SHOW")

KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: We're so grateful to everybody that's come to see us, at "Scandalous." Keep it coming. We need Broad - see every show on Broadway.

LUNDEN: Telling the story of Aimee Semple McPherson has been something of a mission for Kathie Lee Gifford, who first heard about the preacher while she was in college. For the past 12 years, she's been working on the script and lyrics for the musical.

GIFFORD: She was a fierce force of nature in feminine form who was fearless - fearless. And I - I want to be that kind of person.

LUNDEN: McPherson, by all accounts, led a remarkable life. Calling herself Sister Aimee, she barnstormed across the United States in the 1910s, giving revival meetings in tents; and eventually, landed in Los Angeles, where she built a 5,000-seat temple in 1923. According to director David Armstrong...

DAVID ARMSTRONG: She's really the first media superstar. I mean, like Oprah, she had her own magazine, at the time; then, she had her own radio station. When she died, she was already investigating television. And this is in the '40s.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "SCANDALOUS")

LUNDEN: But while she lived - and after she died - McPherson was a figure of great controversy. With her bleached-blonde hair and Hollywood address, some thought her a huckster. Others were true believers. Gifford, who says she was born again herself, at age 12, falls on the side of true believer.

GIFFORD: Aimee did have a faith experience that was absolutely real. Sadly, in our culture today, we treat people of faith - any faith, across the board - we treat them as one of two things; they're either a fool, or they're a phony. And I think that's really as ugly as homophobia is, or bigotry of any kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "SCANDALOUS")

CAROLEE CARMELLO: (As Aimee Semple McPherson) (Singing) I have a fire, it burns deep within. Whether I am inspired or mired in sin, I...

LUNDEN: Gifford makes no bones about her own identification with her heroine, who got her share of bad press.

GIFFORD: Most people, especially in today's world, would be fascinated by the tabloid story of Aimee. Having been the target of tabloid stories myself, that's the least interesting story for me to tell.

LUNDEN: But according to Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson, who reviewed the show in its pre-Broadway tryout last year, Gifford's approach skirts truly exploring McPherson's darker side.

MISHA BERSON: There's a kind of naivete about it that is, I guess, refreshing to some people, and to maybe some of Kathy Lee Gifford's fans. But on Broadway, it's the sort of thing that could look extremely unsophisticated because it simply presents this story of a very complicated woman with a lot of irony in her life, and presents it irony free.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "SCANDALOUS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) We are on a journey...

CARMELLO: (Singing) He will be my journey...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) And everywhere we roam...

CARMELLO: (Singing) And everywhere we roam...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) We're lost without a tent...

CARMELLO: (Singing) I'm lost, I'm tossed...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Singing) Until he takes us home...

LUNDEN: The most dramatic episode of McPherson's life, takes place offstage. For a period of five weeks in 1926, she disappeared, claiming to have been kidnapped. Others, including the Los Angeles attorney general, accused her of having a tryst with her married lover.

GIFFORD: I don't care where she was. It was about - she got off her path and started believing her press, and started thinking that she was something other than what she was. She let go of the hand of God, and all hell broke loose.

LUNDEN: Carolee Carmello, who plays Sister Aimee, says the show is not about religion.

CARMELLO: It's about a fascinating woman. And it's about what she offered the world, and what we can learn from her choices.

LUNDEN: "Scandalous" opened this week, at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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