DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Nominee and Scandalous Star Carolee Carmello

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26 Oct 2012

Carolee Carmello
Carolee Carmello

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Carolee Carmello
Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello, the vocal powerhouse who was Tony-nominated for her performances in Parade and Lestat, is back on Broadway in Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, a new musical by bookwriter and librettist Kathie Lee Gifford and composers David Friedman and David Pomeranz. This tale of sex, drugs, religion, celebrity, music and romance at the Neil Simon Theatre casts the stellar singing actress — who boasts one of the great belts in the American musical theatre, a rich, soaring tone with a seemingly endless range — as evangelist McPherson, who was internationally known in the 1920s, '30s and '40s for her good deeds, a church that regularly welcomed thousands of visitors and a purported kidnapping that led to a sensational trial. Carmello, whose Broadway resume also includes performances in Falsettos, Urinetown, 1776, City of Angels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia! and Sister Act, among others, plays Aimee from her youth to her premature death from drugs in 1944 at age 53. David Armstrong, artistic director of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, directs the production, which will officially open Nov. 15. During the week leading up to her first Broadway preview, I had the pleasure of chatting with Carmello, who spoke about the challenges and joys of her latest theatrical role, working with chat show host and writer Gifford, combining motherhood and eight shows a week on stage and more; that interview follows.

Question: How did you originally get involved with Scandalous? I know you've been through various versions of the show over the years.
Carolee Carmello: I guess about seven years ago or so, I was doing Urinetown at the time, and a friend of mine was doing a reading of this show, which was then called Hurricane Aimee, I think, and he came into work one day and was telling me about the show and about the story. I had never heard of Aimee Semple McPherson at that point, and I said to him, "Wow. That sounds like an amazing story. Who's playing my part?" [Laughs.] And, he said, "Christine Ebersole," and I said, "Oh, sh*t!" [Laughs.] Because she's very talented, and I assumed that [the casting] wouldn't change. As it turned out, I was introduced to Kathie Lee to do another one of her projects called Under the Bridge

Carmello in Scandalous.
photo by Jeremy Daniel

It was an Off-Broadway show based on a children's book, and I was playing a part in that, and she asked me to look at the script of Hurricane Aimee, and when I read through it, I found this woman fascinating… Kathie had written it for two different actresses to play. One to play sort of the younger half of her life, and one to play the older half of her life, so she was asking me to play the older half, obviously, and I read through it and I thought, "You know, I think this device is not necessary. If you could get it written for one actress, I think it would be more successful." And, so I was brazen enough to suggest that to her, and to say to her and the director at the time, "Would you consider doing a reading of it with me playing the whole thing and not just the older part?" And, they thought I was crazy—both of them—and they looked at me sort of like I had two heads, but they agreed to try it. And so we did it, and it was really hard, but it was really exciting, and it hasn't ever gone back. Whenever I get to a point like this week where I'm complaining about how much work I have to do in this show, I have to remember that it's all my fault! [Laughs.] I dug my own grave in this one.

Question: Since you said earlier that you didn't know much about her, what type of research did you do?
Carmello: Kathie suggested a few of the books that she had read. She's done, of course, years and years of research on this woman. She's been fascinated by her for, she says, 40 years—since she was in college. And, I read a few of those books and watched some newsreels and listened to some tapes of her sermons and tried to absorb as much as I could about her life and her strengths and weaknesses, and then at some point, had to sort of let go of that and just play the character that's written in this show, which is partially Aimee and partially a character that's written for the stage. I think that I've got a pretty good handle on her at this point, but you never know. I mean, when you're playing someone who's based on a real-life person, it's always a little dangerous because you can't just make it up. It really is someone's life, especially someone who's legendary like her. I'm doing the best I can, but I'm sure there will be people who say, "That wasn't what she was like!" [Laughs.] There's certainly a lot to sink my teeth into.

Question: Is there much video footage of McPherson?
Carmello: There's a little bit. You know, it was early. Her heyday was the '20s and '30s, really. There was some, but not a huge amount. And, I've watched what I could find, but there's probably other pieces that are undiscovered yet.


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