There she was, Kathie Lee Gifford (formerly Johnson, nee Epstein), a feisty five years old, belting out a cappella "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into Daddy's tape recorder. "My dad was the kind of man who wanted to cherish every second of his children's lives," she says. "We still have that tape. You can hear me stop singing, and I say, 'Where's da music, Daddy?' Then, you hear ? makes me cry to this day when I hear it ? you hear my daddy go, 'Oh, sweetheart, you have to learn to make your own music.'" How well father knew best is only now, 46 years later, becoming abundantly clear to her.
Regis Philbin's pert partner for 15 years on ABC-TV's "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee" has finally gotten around to writing her own musical ticket ? the book and lyrics for a little Off-Broadway show at The Zipper called Under the Bridge. The actual music is by David Pomeranz, but the project allows her her own musical voice, which she didn't have before.
She started putting it together with ? well, with Putting It Together in 1999, when she made her Broadway bow as Carol Burnett's replacement in that Stephen Sondheim songfest. A threatened stagehand strike hovered heavily over that debut, but it lifted in time. "I'll never forget sitting with Steve in my dressing room, saying, 'If I never get to have my opening night, I'll have gotten out of this experience everything I could have ever dreamed of.' He looked at me and said, 'Because you did the work.' And it's so true.
"Now, it's hard to explain to people who come up to me and say, 'Oh, you must miss the television show.' I don't know how to tell them how much I don't miss any of it and how thrilling it is to get up every morning and know I've all day long to do nothing but write. "The thought came to me, 'If you settle for what you've got, you deserve what you get.' I had some power over my own life. I could make choices. I could choose to stay there and make a fortune and feel unfulfilled creatively, or not. I'm not going to belittle that great 15-year experience in my life. It has made my life possible today. But, if you do anything long enough, it just becomes easy, and you don't grow. That wasn't fair to Regis, whom I love, and it wasn't fair to our audience, who deserved somebody to be present."
Consequently, Leap Year before last (on Feb. 29, 2000), Kathie Lee announced she was leaping, battening down the hatches and settling into the comfortable country life with her husband (sportscaster Frank Gifford) and two children (son Cody, 15 in March!, and daughter Cassidy, 11). After the whirligig turmoil of daily TV, it seemed like a deserved slow fade into the sunset. In truth, there were dark clouds unstated at the time, including the failing health of her father and musical mentor, who died in two years.
"He was a musician ? a jazz saxophonist during the Big Band era, in a small band in Maryland called The Five Moods. We were not wealthy people, by any means. He held down two other jobs, and my mom sold eggs door to door, but they introduced me to the tremendous joy that theatre can bring ? the magic of it. There's just no other word for it."
Unfettered, and suddenly empowered, she found her imagination drifting to what came naturally to her ? songwriting ? and, because of the Sondheim influence, she began putting it together as a Broadway show. To David Pomeranz's music (with some songs by David Friedman and Gifford herself), she supplied the lyrics and libretto to a musical biography of legendary twenties evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, which she hopes to have in production by summer with Carolee Carmello.
Somewhere along the line, for a mother-daughter read-along at night, Cassidy Gifford plunked out of her little bookcase "The Family Under the Bridge". "We read it once ? I couldn't stop crying ? and we read it again," Kathie Lee remembers. "Then we put it away and went on to another book, but I couldn't get it off my heart. I was very involved with Aimee at the time, so I wasn't looking for another challenge, but, all of a sudden, I said, 'I've got to do this show.' It took me a very short time to adapt it because the little book is written so beautifully, but it took me a year to get the rights. By then I'd written it and there was no way I wasn't going to get the rights. I'm sure I overpaid out the wazoo."
Natalie Savage Carlson's charming yarn tells of a lifelong hobo in Paris of 1953 (where and when Kathie Lee was born, she prophetically points out) who discovers his shelter beneath the River Seine bridge has been usurped by a homeless family ? a mother and three children. "What happens over the next ten days, before Christmas," Kathie Lee says, "is a universal theme ? how the love of a child (in our case, children) is enough sometimes to melt even the hardest of human hearts."
The hard heart in quasi-residence belongs to Ed Dixon, and it is assailed by Jacquelyn Piro and her pint-sized posse (Alexa Ehrlich, Maggie Watts and Andrew Blake Zutty). Florence Lacey turns up the heart heat as well, playing Dixon's rekindled former flame. For director, Kathie Lee recruited her Putting It Together director, Eric Schaeffer.
The celebration of family that resonates in the show is no happenstance. "My daddy was the first person who held me, and I feel held by him every day of my life," she says.
She still recalls the blustery November day she took him home from the hospital to die. "On this oak in our backyard, there was one leaf hanging, and I wrote the lyrics to 'He Is With You' that day. I needed to know that, although my father was physically going to leave this earth, he was never going to leave me. Every time I look at my children, I see him. There's a line in the song that says, 'Old Mother Nature is dressing in her cloak / As the last leaf dances on the branches of the oak / It's time to draw the curtain as the fall draws to a close / And listen to the secret only Mother Nature knows: / He is with you.'"