Sex, drugs, religion, celebrity, music and romance are swirled together in the new musical Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, written by Kathie Lee Gifford, David Friedman and David Pomeranz, which opened Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The mix of religious figures and musicals is not unusual on Broadway — think The Book of Mormon, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Leap of Faith — but a powerful woman at the center of such an experience is rare (Sister Act notwithstanding). McPherson, who loved to put on religious pageants to move an audience, was internationally known in the 1920s, '30s and '40s — for good deeds, her popular church and one specific public incident involving a purported kidnapping. Tony Award nominee Carmello (Parade, Mamma Mia!, Sister Act) plays Aimee her from her youth to her premature death from drugs in 1944 at age 53.
Scandalous is a longtime passion project of bookwriter and librettist Kathie Lee Gifford, who collaborates with composers David Friedman and David Pomeranz for the musical.
David Armstrong, artistic director of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, directs the production, making his Broadway debut. The show appeared at 5th Avenue Theatre in fall 2011 under the title Saving Aimee. (It also had a developmental run at Arlington's Signature Theatre, where it was called Hurricane Aimee.)
Here's how the producers characterize the fact-inspired show: "Set in 1920s Los Angeles, holiness collides with Hollywood in this extraordinary tale of one remarkable woman's charismatic rise to fame amidst scandalous love affairs and growing controversy, inevitably ending in her much-publicized fall from grace."
Scandalous also features Candy Buckley (Cabaret, The Petrified Prince) as Aimee's mother, Minnie; two-time Tony Award winner George Hearn (Sunset Blvd., La Cage aux Folles, Sweeney Todd) in dual roles as James Kennedy and Brother Bob; Edward Watts (Finian's Rainbow) in dual roles as the love of Aimee's life Robert Semple and David Hutton; Roz Ryan (Chicago, Dreamgirls) as Emma Jo Schaeffer; and Andrew Samonsky in dual roles of Harold McPherson and Kenneth Ormiston.
The ensemble cast includes Nick Cartell, Joseph Dellger, Erica Dorfler, Carlos L. Encinias, Hannah Florence, Corey Greenan, Benjamin Howes, Karen Hyland, Alison Luff, Jesse Nager, Sam Strasfeld, Betsy Struxness, Elizabeth Ward Land, Billie Wildrick, Dan'yelle Williamson and Matt Wolfe.
Music direction and vocal arrangements are by Joel Fram, choreography is by Lorin Latarro.
The creative team of Scandalous also includes scenic designer Walt Spangler (Desire Under the Elms), costume designer Gregory A. Poplyk (making his Broadway debut), Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz (Once, Aida), sound designer Ken Travis (Newsies, Memphis) and Tony-winning orchestrator Bruce Coughlin (The Light in the Piazza). Dance and incidental music arrangements are by Sam Davis.
Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson is produced by Dick and Betsy DeVos, Foursquare Foundation (connected to the church McPherson founded) and in association with The 5th Avenue Theatre (David Armstrong, Executive Producer and Artistic Director; Bernadine Griffin, Managing Director; Bill Berry, Producing Director) and Jeffrey Finn, Executive Producer.
Foursquare Foundation, one of the producers, is affiliated with The Foursquare Church, which McPherson founded. Today, The Foursquare Church has more than 1,800 U.S. churches and almost 60,000 churches and meeting places in 140 countries. Read more about the history of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (the organization's official name) here.
Carmello reprises the charismatic role that she played last fall in a Seattle tryout. The 20th-century evangelical superstar Aimee Semple McPherson was the American religious leader who staged provocative illustrated sermons, fed the hungry and famously vanished, claiming she was kidnapped.
Carmello is the versatile powerhouse actress-singer who was Tony Award-nominated for her work in Lestat and Parade. Gifford told Playbill.com that she originally wrote the show for two actresses, but when Carmello was cast, she told Gifford she was up for the challenge of playing the wide range of McPherson's life. This is Carmello's 12th Broadway show, following such titles as Sister Act, The Addams Family, Mamma Mia!, Urinetown and more.
Gifford — a singer, Broadway actress, "Today" talk-show host and humanitarian — lamented that McPherson has "fallen through the cracks of history," even though her evangelical efforts continue today.
The property's earlier titles Hurricane Aimee and Saving Aimee didn't quite hit the nail on the head, Gifford said, and the creators didn't want a marquee that suggested sermons or church. "I don't want anybody thinking that they're coming to church," Gifford told Playbill.com. "She was a Pentecostal evangelist — and that is about as theatrical as you get. I don't want to scare off anybody. I've been obsessed by her since I first heard her name more than 40 years ago in college."
Of the title change, she told Playbill.com, "We've been looking for the right title as long as I've been looking for the right story."
There have been trims and rewrites since Seattle, Gifford said. "We have so much story to tell, some of the best songs had to go…if they didn't move our story forward then they had to be sacrificed on the altar."
Who is the audience for Scandalous? Gifford, herself known as a woman of faith, said she wants "a secular audience...people of faith…people interested in history and feminism…"
While explaining that the creative goal is "to be faithful to her legacy….to what her life story teaches us," Gifford quickly added that Aimee was a force of nature, a tabloid queen, a woman who knew great love (her first husband, missionary Robert Semple) and a figure of mystery (she disappeared for a month, claiming she was a victim of a kidnapping, which could not be proved).
The Neil Simon Theatre is at 250 W. 52nd St., between Broadway and 8th Ave. Tickets are $57- $127 for all performances (all prices include a $2 facility fee). For the holiday weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas, tickets are $77-$147.