Three names that provoke an instant reaction: Kathie Lee Gifford.
Nearly a century ago, it was a different three: Aimee Semple McPherson, now forgotten by some but not Gifford, who's been working on a musical for the past 12 years based on the life -- and strange disappearance -- of this once-mega-famous evangelist.
"Scandalous," in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre, opens Nov. 15, starring Broadway vet Carolee Carmello, with music by Hewlett native David Pomeranz and David Friedman, and book, lyrics and additional music by Gifford.
She seems the perfect person to helm this bio-mu. (If Hollywood has biopics, Broadway ought to have its own term for shows like "Chaplin" and "Scandalous.") As the wife of football legend Frank Gifford, plus TV host ("Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee," and now "Today"), outspoken Christian and scandal-sheet target (recall that pesky child-labor brouhaha in the '90s), she knows what a dirty little bugger fame can be. She spoke recently with Newsday.
You're famous, well-off, you could sit back, relax . . . yet here you are, taking a risk writing a musical. Why?
I'd never thought I'd be grateful for being a postmenopausal woman. It leaves one a great amount of time in the middle of the night to be creative. Here's the thing -- I love storytelling. That's what I did on my show with Regis all those years. . . . We told stories. That's as old as the caveman, and . . . so am I.
Why Aimee? Why this story?
I first heard about her 40 years ago . . . in college. Then later in Los Angeles, and became fascinated. When I was dating Frank Gifford, he said, "Kathie, I went to her church." He was a member of a Pentecostal family, dirt-poor, and they went to her temple. He was 12, and said there was a sensuality about her that even he could feel as she came down the aisle, throwing roses.
She made the Bible come alive.
People who've never read the Bible think it's boring. But it's like "The Real Housewives of the Old Testament."
Ha! Yes. Many people don't know her anymore -- of course, many don't even know The Beatles.
Isn't that unbelievable! They know Justin Bieber but not The Beatles. He's a lovely young man, but he certainly hasn't earned the right like The Beatles did to be an iconic part of world history. But we have a very short attention span today. Because of sound bytes, social media, Twitter. You're lucky to get people to sit for an hour without wanting a cocktail or potty break. There's very little discipline in our world.
What do you think happened when she disappeared?
I honestly don't know. I no longer care. What I care about is that she was fearless. She did things no woman has ever done before or since. In our world today, Joe, people of faith -- whatever faith -- are treated as one of two things: either a phony or a fool. That's as ugly as homophobia or racism to me. Many people of faith are extremely well intentioned. She was extraordinary. And weak. But she found her way back. We all lose our way in this world -- we let go of the hand of God somewhere along the line. And we pay a price. What I want our musical to show is that there's a way back. There's hope. We hear so much about God's judgment and little about his compassion. The creator loves what he has created, and is always, always shining the light back onto the right path.
Holy moly, lady, you are Aimee Semple McPherson incarnate!
Oh, I don't know. I just think her story deserves to be told.
How'd you fare during Sandy?
We live in Connecticut on a 20-foot cliff on the Long Island Sound. We stayed because that house has stood there since the 1920s. Some neighbors stayed with us. Not only are we on a cliff, we've got the best wine cellar around.
You're lucky. And I suppose you feel blessed.
I do. But I don't believe in luck. I think all things have a purpose.
No, I believe we live in a world that was never intended to be this way. Because of our selfishness, our greed, we live in a world that has succumbed to our darker side. Yet, we're capable of great mercy. I must've walked past 14 homeless people last night. I said, "Lord, don't let me be so wrapped up in getting to Broadway that I step over people in need." If we could just remember that, what a planet we'd live on. I'm broke, I ran out of cash . . . but you know, that's why God made Frank Gifford -- he's my human ATM. [She laughs.]
Just don't forget your security code.
May he live a long and healthy life.