PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Kathie Lee Gifford

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Kathie Lee Gifford Former talk show host and current musical theatre lyricist-librettist Kathie Lee Gifford meant it when she titled her new show Saving Aimee, which will have its debut at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, on April 10.
Kathie Lee Gifford
Kathie Lee Gifford

With her musical, Gifford means to give the popular and controversial Jazz Age evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson — a headliner-grabber in her time, now almost forgotten — a fair shake. After surviving a near-death experience in 1913, the twice-married, twice-divorced McPherson began a preaching career, embarking on a "Gospel Tour" of the country in a Packard traveling car. Finally settling in Los Angeles, she formed the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, filling the 5,300-seat capacity of her Angelus Temple three times daily. She published a magazine, broadcast on the radio, foiled death threats, wrote operas, and once entered her temple on a motorcycle. But her love affair with the American people came to an end with her mysterious, 35-day disappearance in 1926. Initially thought dead, McPherson stumbled out of the desert near the Arizona-Mexico border claiming she had been kidnapped. Police, however, found may inconsistencies in her story, and the public and press bandied about many theories, suggesting she had met a lover, had an abortion or staged the whole thing as a publicity stunt. She continued to preach, but largely fell out of favor.

Gifford did not simply stumble on McPherson's story and plunder it for material. She has been nursing an obsession with the woman for three decades, finding more than a few parallels to her own life as a celebrity and woman of faith. She spoke to Playbill.com about how attitudes toward religion and famous women have and haven't changed in the U.S. over the past century.

Playbill.com: Of all the second careers people might have guessed for you, musical composer seems the most unlikely.
Kathie Lee Gifford: [Laughs.] Nobody's more surprised than I am.

Playbill.com: How has this become the next chapter in your life?
KG: Oh, by default, I would say. I started writing songs about eight years ago when I was going back into Rainbow and Stars. I needed a song about tabloid hell, which I had lived quite a bit of at that point. I called my friend David Zippel and I called my friend David Friedman and asked them both to write a novelty number for me. And they both pretty much said the same thing, which was "We haven't lived it. Why don't you write some thoughts down and we'll take it from there." An hour and a half later I had written down all these lyrics and faxed it to David Friedman and ten minutes later he called me and said, "Congratulations, you've written your first song." David is the fastest composer in the history of the world. He played it for me over the telephone. It ended up being a song called "You Sell" which brought the house down at Rainbow and Star because it was true, all true. That was about 300 songs ago.

Playbill.com: You've written 300 songs?
KG: Oh, sometimes it's just ridiculous. Sometimes it's ten a day. Playbill.com: But it's a big leap from writing individual songs to writing a whole musical.
KG: It's a very big leap from writing a very specific song to writing a book song. But that came very natural to me. I don't know why, but I'm grateful for it, because they tell me that it one of the more difficult aspects of theatre. I've just been a huge musical theatre fan ever since I was a little child going to Shady Grove Music Fair here in Maryland, a summer theatre-in-the-round. It had a huge impact in me. The book writing was something else. I took five songs into Jimmy Nederlander, Sr. Right after I left my show with Regis [Philbin], Jimmy asked me to do Mame for him. I said "Jimmy, I can't. My dad is really ill. I'm not sure how long I have with my father." And he said, "Well, I want to work with you. What can we do?" I said, "I'm sitting here right now and writing some songs for this project I'm doing," and I mentioned it was [about Aimee Semple McPherson]. He said, "I remember her. I'm old enough to remember her. She was quite a broad!" Long story short, a year later I took five songs into Jimmy and he fell in love with the score, which really encouraged me. He kept looking at me saying, "You wrote this?" He knew me as a talk show host. As I was leaving, he said the words that changed my life: "When do I get to see the book?"

Playbill.com: There was no book writer?
KG: Being the ignorant slob I was, I just thought, "How hard can a book be?" So I called Rupert Holmes. Rupert wrote about ten pages for me. I said, "But Rupert, missionaries don't talk like that?" You see, I think he planned the whole thing; it was like the only bad 10 pages Rupert Holmes ever wrote. He did it so I would say "Shoot! I better write this. I'm the only one who knows these people." I've spent years absolutely obsessed with Aimee Semple McPherson.

Playbill.com: Why?
KG: I don't know. I first heard about her in college and I couldn't believe such a person existed. The more I learned about her, she took on these mythic proportions for me which continue to grow to this day. I ended up dating one of her grandsons after I graduated from college. My husband went to Aimee's church as a 12-year-old kid, so he remembers Aimee.

Playbill.com: Did you know it was McPherson's grandson while you were dating him?
KG: Yes. My girlfriend dated him first. I dated him second. Neither of us ended up with him. He's a wonderful musical performer, Byron Nease. He played the older Patrick the last time Mame was on Broadway. The crazy thing is, Aimee had a daughter, and I found out during the course of my research that she was still alive. She was 93 at the time. She died last month. I became quite close to her the last years of her life. She was a magnificent woman.

Playbill.com: How did she feel about her mother?
KG: She adored her mother, although she rebelled against her mother years ago and married a Jewish violinist from New York City name Harry Salter. This is where it gets weirder. Harry Salter went on to create "Name That Tune" which was my big break in show business in 1977.

Playbill.com: So you were destined to write a musical about Aimee Semple McPherson.
KG: I wouldn't say that. That makes it sound so solemn. What I would say is, why wouldn't I? We sort of lived parallel lives. I was such a tabloid target. Aimee was a tabloid target. She was the first tabloid queen. She was deeply misunderstood. The very first song in the show is "Stand Up," where she is about to go on trial and she says, "Have you ever felt tossed and alone on a sea of despair?/Have you ever felt lost and you feel that you're going nowhere." I'm able to write all that because I've been there. So much of the lyrics were like a dam had been uncorked and it couldn't come out fast enough.

Playbill.com: How much of her life do you cover?
KG: We cover her entire life. I know it sounds ridiculous. It's an incredibly action-packed life. The hardest part of the whole thing was "What do I leave out?" The first book I wrote was about 180 pages. We did a four-hour reading for Jimmy Nederlander. Jimmy goes "The book's a mess, but I still love the score! Come back when the book's fixed." We had four readings and one workshop about a year and a half ago. That was the key for me. It was painfully clear what didn't work, and exhilaratingly clear what did.

Playbill.com: Does the Nederlander support mean there's Nederlander money in the project?
KG: No. They always felt it wasn't ready. But they're coming down to see it along with some others. We have wonderful investors who are very supportive.

Playbill.com: How do handle the most famous event of her life, the "kidnapping"?
KG: As it should be handled; that is, we let the audience decide where she was. It was very important to me to be excruciatingly fair to her. I wouldn't want somebody taking my life story and saying I ran sweat shops when I never did, just because that made it more interesting somehow. That perpetuates a lie. And the truth is always more interesting. And here is why I think some people go wrong when they write a story about so-called "religious people." I think many people tend to think from day one that everybody who is religious is a phony or hypocrite. I don't think so. I think there are many phonies and hypocrites, but that's been done ad nauseum. It's far more interesting to write a story about a true crisis of faith, a person who lets success cloud their vision, make them stumble on their path. To me, that's far more interesting than saying, like in "Elmer Gantry," everybody's a phony. I've known both types, having been in that world since I was 12. I've sat with the biggest phonies and most deeply sincere people as well. I don't like labels.