With director Eric Schaeffer and composer David Pomeranz, the actress-singer who was one half of "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" for 15 years is redefining herself again by creating (and producing) the world premiere of Under the Bridge. She hopes the family-friendly Off-Broadway musical has a wide future beyond its limited 12-week engagement Dec. 1-Feb. 20, 2005. The production opening Jan. 6 is a test of the new show, which concerns a hobo who takes a destitute family under his wing — under the bridge along the Seine, where he makes his home
Gifford penned libretto and lyrics to the musical, drawing from the award-winning family book by Natalie Savage Carlson. The cast at the Zipper Theatre includes Ed Dixon (Les Misérables, Here Lies Jenny) as the homeless Parisian Armand, Florence Lacey (The Grand Tour, 1978's Hello, Dolly!) as a gypsy named Mireli, and Jacquelyn Piro (Miss Saigon, Les Miz) as widowed mother Madame Calcet.
Writing Under the Bridge is no hobby for Gifford. Waiting in the wings is Hurricane Aimee, her ambitious musical about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and a third show set during World War II.
PLAYBILL ON-LINE: New work always requires molding and shaping, particularly once an audience comes in and tells you things. Do you imagine you will continue with rewrites and refinements throughout previews?
Kathie Lee Gifford: I'm sure we'll be doing all kinds of freshening and touch-ups as we go along. This is a new experience for me. So far it hasn't been the mind-boggling experience I thought it was going to be. I think the next one [Hurricane Aimee] is going to be like that because of the material. The book that I adapted this story from, "The Family Under the Bridge," was such a well-crafted little gem that the characters were quite defined. They were a joy. We're telling the story of what happens over 10 days in Paris in 1953. As opposed to the next one, which tells of a 54-year life. I am getting my feet wet with this one — and I'm gonna get baptized, I have the feeling, with the next one.
PBOL: How did you discover "The Family Under the Bridge." What attracted you to it?
KLG: I'd never heard of it, or its author. Three years ago my daughter was learning how to read, and every night for homework she had to do a half an hour of reading. We were encouraged to read with her. It was something we both enjoyed very much because my daughter has a flair for the dramatic — I don't know where she got it from. We tend to really enjoy that time. We ran out of books, and she went to her bookcase and said, "What about this one, mom?" I'd never heard of it, but it was a Newbery Award winner, so that told us something. It won the Newbery trophy in 1958. We started reading it. It took us about two days and we loved it so much we read it again, and then we went on to other books. I just couldn't get this one off my heart. PBOL: Did the story "sing" to you?
KLG: I couldn't believe that someone had not made a musical out of it. It was so delineated where a song should go and what a song should say — it was waiting for me. It took a year to get the rights. Natalie Savage Carlson had passed away in the 1990s, but her estate was being handled through HarperCollins.
PBOL: Did you reinvent the plot, or was it all there?
KLG: No, no, I had to reinvent enormous parts of it. To transfer a classic little children's tale to a full, fleshed out musical, it needed to be heightened, needed depth, lots of back story. We're approaching this in a very Dickens fashion. He often wrote on the theme of children in peril, and what the love of a child could do to a hardened human heart. Universal theme, brand new story. I love revivals because I get to take my children to something that's brand new for them. But I hope people don't stop writing brand-new shows. It's so important that we have new stories.
PBOL: Do you know the background of the story? Is it based on an old fairy tale?
KLG: I spoke to the granddaughter of Natalie Savage Carlson. I called her. She told me how this story came to be. Natalie's husband was in the Navy, just as my father was in the Navy and stationed in Paris around the same period. My father was an attaché to Eisenhower after World War II. I was born in Paris, so I set it in 1953. We lived in France for a short time after I was born, but the influence of France on my life — and my parents' lives— was huge.
Natalie and her husband and another couple were all dressed up in their finery going to a Christmas party one day, driving along the Seine River in Paris, when they saw a commotion on the side of the river. Being a writer and an interested person, she said, "Stop the car, I want to see what the hubbub's about." She got out of the car with her friend, in their high heels, and climbed down the ravine, and right there were hobos and gypsies having a Christmas feast. She was so moved by it that they lost themselves watching the goings-on: the merriment and their meager little dinner. This heavy-set very crotchety old hobo started chasing them up the ravine. She based the story right after that on this hobo, whom she named Armand.
PBOL: I only know the outline of the story, but it sounds like a parable about community and finding family.
KLG: It is, and yet it's not a children's musical, per se. It's very much Armand's story and the children happen to be a dramatic vehicle. I mean, children are certainly welcome to come to it, but it's not just for children any more than Fiddler or Sound of Music or any of the ones I grew up with — I'm certainly not equating mine with them. We deal with some very heavy-duty themes in it: We deal with classism, racism, death, white slavery, coming to grips with one's destiny — and loss, a lot of loss. The children's father has died. The mother is in deep depression, mourning over her husband's death. The family's been put out of the room they were renting and they live under a bridge. Armand comes "home" one night to discover three little children and their dog under "his bridge," and he takes umbrage — pardon the pun. [Beat.] Oh, I shoulda used that! "I'm taking um-bridge!" Shoot, how did I get through writing a whole musical without realizing that!?
PBOL: That's what previews are for! Add it in.
KLG: [Laughs.] Hey, I might have to stick an "umbrage" in there! [Beat.] We wanted it to be very dark. I'm a huge Dickens fan. The mother has to work in the laundry all day long. If she puts her children in a charity home, they won't be a family any more, they'll be dispersed. All she wants to do is keep her family together until they can get on their feet.
PBOL: Sounds like you're not afraid to touch on dark and light in the show...
KLG: I guess so much of what this was for me was going through a mourning process myself. My daddy was the great love of my life, and he was sick when I left "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" and we didn't know how much time we had left with him. I started writing Bridge, and I wasn't even aware of how much of my mourning I was doing — in a positive way — through writing this. It's about mourning. Right before the song, "He Is With You," that Mireli, the gypsy lady, sings to the mother, she says, "We gypsies do not believe in death. It does not exist for us. We believe we are all here for a season, like all of nature." I wrote most of the lyrics to the song the day two years ago that I went to the hospital to bring my father home to die. I looked up at my backyard and saw this huge oak tree, and there was one leaf left dangling in the cold November chill — just like father's life. I came in and wrote those lyrics...it was just a prayer for me that day. I had no idea I would adapt it for Bridge. For me, it was more of an art song. So far, there hasn't been a dry eye in place during that song because all of us have lost someone we love at one time or another.
PBOL: Did your folks love Paris?
KLG: He and my mom were the happiest they ever were in Paris. They were very humble people. I still have my mom, thank God. They both came from broken dysfunctional homes: alcohol and divorce and abuse and all kinds of things. They married when my father was 25 and my mom was 19. They made the vow that they would make family everything because they had never known what family was like. When Madame Calcet sings the song at the end of the show, "Long as We Have Us," that's my song in a big way. I've had a lot of the fame and fortune that this world can offer you, that so many people think is gonna make all their dreams come true. Having had it, I can say it doesn't make all your dreams come true; it creates many nightmares as a matter of fact. As long as you have what's really important, you have everything.
PBOL: Did you know from the beginning you wanted the extraordinary character-actor Ed Dixon to play Armand?
KLG: I had a reading here in my home for one of my friend David Friedman's shows and Ed was in it, and I watched him perform and I went up to him after and said, "Can I give you a property I've worked on? I'm going to be doing a reading in a couple of months...as far as I'm concerned, I wrote this for you not even knowing you!" He called me the next day and said, "Enchanté! I would be dee-lighted!" [Laughs.] He already spoke in a French accent. He has been a dream to work with. He is brilliant in this, as is Flo Lacey, as is Jackie Piro. I am so blessed to have all these Broadway veterans. All of them could be working on major shows on Broadway, but every one of them wanted to be attached to this. I feel really, really honored to have them.
PBOL: You're a performer. Don't you want to jump up there and act?
KLG: No. Oh, my gosh, the last thing in the world! First of all, I can't sing as well as any of these people. I find more joy in listening to people sing songs that I had something to do with. And David Pomeranz, who wrote the music, is a wonderful, wonderful singer in his own right and feels that way.
PBOL: You probably never could have written musicals if you were still on your television schedule.
KLG: I was much more exhausted doing that than this, because this so invigorates me. My daddy said many, many wise things to me over the years but one that rooted in me is, "Kathie, if you can do something with your eyes closed, it's time to find something new to do." I had done the show with Regis for so long, 15 years, and I certainly don't want to come off ungrateful because that's the exact opposite of what I am. It got to the point where it was not a challenge at all. One thing about theatre, I can probably spend the next hundred years in it and I don't think I'll ever be able to do it with my eyes closed.