As anyone who knows her from morning television can attest, Kathie Lee Gifford has an eye-opening anecdote for every occasion. Today, the "Today" co-host is delightfully oversharing over lunch at Sardi's. "My dad always used to tell me, 'Honey, find something you love to do and then figure out a way to get paid for it,'" she recalls, sipping a glass of white wine. "Now I've done everything in this business but porn, and at this point I doubt there would be any offers."
Perhaps less salacious than skin flicks, Gifford's latest showbiz gig is as book writer and lyricist for Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, a long-gestating musical about the world's first superstar evangelist. With music by David Friedman and David Pomeranz and direction by David Armstrong, Scandalous opens Nov. 15 following previews from Oct. 13 at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre.
Blessed with charisma not unlike Gifford's, McPherson found Hollywood fame in the '20s and '30s as a healer and media mogul. Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of the 20th century. "She was a fearless, fierce force of nature in feminine form, and we haven't seen anyone like her before or since," raves Gifford, who first learned about the Pentecostal preacher while studying at Oral Roberts University. "She was a genius, and that's why I needed a genius like Carolee Carmello to play her."
Carmello, who reprises the role she played in last year's pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, has been with Scandalous — previously called Saving Aimee — since an early production in 2005. "Kathie Lee has put her faith in me, and there's a lot to live up to," says Carmello, a two-time Tony Award nominee (for Parade and Lestat). "Between honoring this amazing pioneer's life and honoring Kathie Lee's passionate devotion to telling this story, it's a big responsibility." "If by 'passionate' you mean 'obnoxious,'" Gifford jokes.
A recording artist with roots in gospel music, Gifford made her Broadway debut in the 1999 Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together, but insists she never considered playing McPherson herself. "Half of finding out what you are in life is finding out what you're not, and I, sir, am no Carolee Carmello," she says.
Carmello's powerful pipes help bring the pageantry of McPherson's dramatic sermons to life onstage; the show uses the evangelist's most famous sermon, "The Story of My Life," as a device to help tell her tale. But Gifford, a born-again Christian since the age of 12, is quick to note that the show isn't just for churchgoing, God-fearing folk. "Aimee may preach, but the show's not preachy," Gifford explains. "The last thing we want people to think is that they're coming to church. They're coming to see a razzamatazz Broadway musical about a historical figure who did unbelievable things."
Having recently broken out of the habit as Mother Superior in Broadway's Sister Act, Carmello is likewise unconcerned about the potential of Scandalous scaring off a secular audience. "Our creative team includes all religious persuasions," says Carmello, who considers herself an atheist. "It's a good cross-section of our country and our audience, so we all throw in our two cents about what feels comfortable to watch and comfortable to play." Adds Gifford, "The show doesn't have a religious message, but it is spiritual in that it reflects Aimee's message of 'God loves you, no matter what.'"
Despite McPherson's saintly accomplishments, many have written her off as a sinful phony due to a string of public scandals, including divorces, rumored love affairs and an addiction to painkillers that ultimately resulted in a fatal overdose at the age of 53. Accused of faking her own kidnapping, she was famously embroiled in a courtroom trial that inspired the 1976 TV movie "The Disappearance of Aimee" starring Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis.
"She was a woman of sincere faith, but she was also sincerely flawed, as is every person in this room," Gifford announces firmly, perking up ears at nearby tables. "The problem is that most people, if they know of Aimee at all, only know her from the tabloids. If you only knew 'tabloid Kathie Lee,' you wouldn't really know me either. Was she a true woman of God or just one hell of a woman? I think it's possible to be both."
Gifford may embrace McPherson "warts and all," but she insists there's nothing scandalous about the Scandalous lead producers: Foursquare Foundation, which is affiliated with the Foursquare Church that McPherson founded, and conservative Republican funders Dick and Betsy DeVos. "When somebody comes to you in today's financial environment and wants to give you money, you don't ask about their religion or political party," says Gifford, who clarifies that her producers have no artistic control. "I had two words: 'Thank you.' And two more words: 'Sign here.'"