As book writer and lyricist, Kathie Lee Gifford is hell-bent on spreading the good word about superstar Jazz-Age evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, controversial subject of the long-gestating Broadway musical Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson. Directed by Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre artistic director David Armstrong, who helmed the show's pre-Broadway engagement, Scandalous, which features songs by David Friedman and David Pomeranz, opens Nov. 15 following previews from Oct. 13 at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. Last seen as Sister Act's Mother Superior, Carolee Carmello, a two-time Tony Award nominee for Parade and Lestat, stars as the title preacher, who found Hollywood fame and a highly publicized fall from grace. Straight from co-hosting NBC's "Today," Gifford recently sat down with Playbill to praise and defend her late muse — and share some inspirational theatre-world anecdotes.
What drew you to Aimee Semple McPherson? One might say you're a little obsessed.
Kathie Lee Gifford: I've been fascinated since I first heard about her more than 40 years ago, but I've been obsessed for the last 12 years; anyone who knows me, especially my family, will attest to that. I couldn't believe that anybody could've lived that much of a life, and she died at a young age. I was fascinated with her as a woman, a woman of faith, and a woman who accomplished what she did in that time period. She was a fearless, fierce force of nature in feminine form, and we haven't seen anyone like her before or since. If you put together five of the most unbelievable women in the world today, you still wouldn't have what Aimee was.
How did you first discover her?
KLG: I heard a couple of anecdotes about her in college, at Oral Roberts University, and I initially thought, "Oh, please." When I went out to Los Angeles, I ended up meeting people who actually knew her or had gone to her Bible study. My pastor had gone to her Bible college, and I ended up briefly dating her grandson by her third husband. The kicker is that when I first met my husband, Frank Gifford, I was telling him about this woman — I was fascinated with her even then — and he told me about how he and his poor Pentecostal family had gone to Aimee's church and seen her two years before she died. By that time she was wracked with illness and drug addiction, but he said she was still coming down the ramp, throwing roses. Let's just say that Frank had a visceral experience as a 12-year-old boy, because she was still sexy at 52.
Is that when your fascination began turning into obsession?
KLG: It was just a matter of being out there [in L.A.] where she had so much influence and hearing all the stories. By then I was also reading biographies of her, watching old kinescopes of her, and reading some of her old sermons. I just loved the woman's theatricality and vision. I had already started writing the show in 2000 when Time magazine called her one of the most influential people of the 20th century, and I'm thinking, "Why doesn't anybody know her story?" It made me mad. How did she fall through the cracks of history? It's not right.
How did she fall through the cracks?
KLG: Because she was a woman, because she was a woman of faith… Also, because of her tabloid problems, many people wrote her off as a phony.
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