I recently checked out one of the preview performances and can report to you that it’s a rousing, thought-provoking and, ultimately, inspirational portrait of one of the most influential and enigmatic religious leaders of the 2oth century. It’s a role brought spectacularly to life by Carolee Carmello, the Broadway actress known for her roles in such productions as Sister Act, The Addams Family and Mamma Mia!
Afterward, I sat down for a wide-ranging chat with Kathie Lee, the highlights of which you can read below the video about Aimee Semple McPherson’s legacy — built before a scandal involving an allegedly faked kidnapping and a torrid love affair threatened to destroy everything she worked to create.
JWK: What drew you to Aimee’s story?
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: Well, anybody that’s heard Aimee’s story is drawn to her because it’s such an extraordinary story. When I first heard about her 40 years ago when I was at college, I couldn’t believe the life she had led…I just remember thinking that’s impossible. What kind of a woman in the 1920′s could have done that when women didn’t even have the vote…And then I moved to Los Angeles to pursue my own career in the 1970′s and because Los Angeles is where her temple had been and so much of her life had taken place, I started hearing all kinds of stories about her and I didn’t know what was true or wasn’t true. I just knew that this was quite an extraordinary woman to be talked about in such legendary terms so many years after she had passed away. It just got my attention and the more I studied about her the more fascinated I became. I went to Jack Hayford‘s church at Church On the Way in Los Angeles and he had gone to her Bible college. Then later I was dating Frank (Gifford) when I moved to New York and I was talking about her and he goes “Oh, yeah, I went to her temple when I was a kid.” He had been in a Pentecostal family and as a 12-year-old kid had gone to Aimee’s temple on Sunday’s when his dad was working at the shipyards during World War II. And then I found the connection with Aimee’s daughter — that her husband had been the creator of Name That Tune (the game show) that I got my big break on.
KLG: I don’t believe in coincidence. I just think that all things work together for good — Romans 8:28 — and I just felt like I was meant to write this.
KLG: Yes, the sweatshop allegations were completely untrue, found to be untrue but for several years there nobody wanted to know the truth because the truth didn’t sell newspapers, the truth wasn’t selling the nightly newscast. There’s something called “an inconvenient truth” and I don’t mean Al Gore. It just made a better story that I was guilty than I was raising money for an AIDS home and house for crack babies in New York City. $14 million dollar went to that and nobody ever went to look at it, nobody ever went to verify it. They just assumed I was pocketing it and it was ridiculous.
JWK: Do you think that experience somehow prepared you to be able to tell this story in a way — because you could feel it more?
KLG: I think so. I think sometimes the very reason we go through something is so that we can be empathetic with another person later on. I think when you’ve gone through a betrayal in life then when somebody’s been betrayed you can talk to the person about it. If your husband’s been unfaithful to you, you know what that’s like, you know how that feels. You can share true empathy with someone. It’s when people say “I know how you feel” that had never been through something that rings hollow to people. I can say to someone “I know how you feel” because I do. I’ve been through it and God can use that in our lives. He can bring beauty from the ashes.
JWK: You run two charities named for your children. Can you tell me about them?
KLG: They’re basically the same organization called the Association to Benefit Children here in New York City. Back in the early nineties, when AIDS was an epidemic and crack addiction was an epidemic, we renovated one little townhouse that they ended up calling Cody House and that’s where all the AIDS babies died because there was no hope for them at the time. Then, later, after we sued the State of New York to unblind HIV testing so that pregnant women could discover their HIV status and get the prenatal care that they needed…If a woman found out that she was HIV positive and she was pregnant, and she got a certain cocktail of drugs, we knew from working with the Association to Benefit Children that the chance of her having a child with the AIDS virus would go from 40% to less than 8%. So, we were part of a lawsuit that sued the State of New York to unblind HIV testing.
I sat with Governor Pataki at the time and told him about this and, here I was, basically, part of a lawsuit against his state, and I had dinner with him one night and he said “You know what? I didn’t know that. We’re on the wrong side of this issue and I’m gonna do something about it.” I left dinner that night thinking “Sure, what politician ever does what they say they’re gonna do?” Within one month he mandated the unblinding of HIV testing. That was the first year that the AIDS death rate went down in New York State. Because the AIDS birthrate went down. So, I’ve always give tremendous credit to Governor Pataki. He did a very unpopular thing politically but it was the right thing to do. It was absolutely the right thing to do. Then after that every other state followed.
JWK: He actually didn’t realize it until you told him?
KLG: He didn’t know. You see there’s two kinds of ignorance in the world. There’s ignorance which is that kind — you just truly didn’t know the facts. That’s so understandable. We’re all guilty of that kind of ignorance. I said “Hello” to somebody the other day and said “How’s your husband?” and She said “He’s gone.” I didn’t know that he had died. You’re forgiven for such a thing, you know? It’s just how would you know?
The other kind of ignorance is the kind that chooses to remain that way in spite of the facts that are presented to you. And that’s what I was up against in the world and in the media at the time that I was accused of those things. No matter what facts were presented, they didn’t want to change their story. I was “an inconvenient truth” in that sense.
JWK: I read on Wikipedia that you working on a musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life.
KLG: Yes…I just did the lyrics for it with a wonderful, wonderful, composer named John McDaniel. We’re trying to get the rights to produce it now. We thought we had them (but) that’s in a legal hassle right now. But I’m hoping so. It’s one of my favorite scores that I’ve ever been involved in. I’m real excited about it.
JWK: Have you always been writing music or is this something you came upon later.
KLG: I always wrote. I always wrote lyrics. I was the one that if somebody was having a birthday somebody would say to me “Kathie, you write a song for them” but it was always a stupid song, a goofy song. But I never really thought I could write a serious song until my friend David Friedman, who’s one of our composers, years ago when I was doing a nightclub act here in New York and I knew I needed a number that would address all the tabloid years and I called him and I said “Would you write a song for me about it?” And he said “I’ve never lived it. Why don’t you write some thoughts down and then I’ll write the song?” Well, I wrote all these lyrics and…I sent them to him and about twenty minutes later he calls me and he says “Congratulations, you’ve written your first song.” I said “I have?” He says “Yeah, you wanna hear it?” And it was a song called “You Sell.”…When David Letterman was sick with his heart condition, I was the first woman to host Late Night with David Letterman, I took it out of the mothballs and performed it that night. I’ve probably written 2,000 songs since then. I don’t know how many years ago that was.
JWK: So you’re enjoying this new avenue of your career.
KLG: Very much. Much more than I’ve ever enjoyed being a performer. I like sitting in the dark and watching people far more talented than I’ll ever be sing my songs and say my words. It’s thrilling. These are the most talented people on the planet here on Broadway. Carolee Carmello (who plays Aimee Semple McPherson) is the finest working actress in the musical theater today. She’s like having Barbra Streisand as a singer and Meryl Streep as an actress rolled up in one. And she does eight shows a week.
JWK: She’s very good.
KLG: Very good?!
(Kathie Lee laughs)
JWK: What’s next for you after this?
KLG: A little vacation. I’ll see my family at Christmas time. We open on November 15th. My kids will be home from California for Thanksgiving — a quiet family Thanksgiving and away for the holidays I hope. And then I’m writing another musical with the same John McDaniel (with whom she’s collaborating on It’s a Wonderful Life), just a little 90-minute review called A Table at Neary’s about a little pub here in New York City. It’s Frank (and my) favorite restaurant in New York that means a great deal to us for personal reasons and what goes on in that little pub is a little microcosm of life in New York City. I don’t set out ever to write a hit. I don’t know how to do that. I just set out to tell a story. And you only hope that an audience is going to find it and enjoy it.
What’s exciting is that we’re discovering our audience here in New York City of all places is really responding to this very specific about a Pentecostal preacher. But people of all faiths seem to be reacting to it. If atheists like it then I’ve done my job.
JWK: You’re really bringing faith to Broadway.
KLG: Well, it’s not the first time faith has been brought to Broadway. I mean Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Sister Act, Leap of Faith. I mean Sound of Music is about faith. It’s not that I’m the first one by any means. It’s just that I’m the first one to bring this particular story. I don’t think Pentecostalism has ever been examined, perhaps. That might be a first.
JWK: It may be a little early for this question but is there any thought to a movie version of Scandalous?
KLG: Well, it certainly would be lovely (but) we just want to get open and stay open for a while. I’m trying to have humble hopes. But, of course, we’d love to have a film made of it. Aimee screams to be theatricalized and, of course, this show cannot go to the world unless it first comes to Broadway.
JWK: What is your own opinion of Aimee? Do you believe that she was innocent of the allegations against her?
KLG: She was never found innocent. All charges were dropped on a technicality. Everybody else’s story fell apart in the course of the trial. Hers is the only story that never changed. I think exactly what Aimee says in the show — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I don’t know where she was those five weeks. It’s not even my business where she was. I don’t where she was. I’ll let the audience decide (what they think). God knows where she was and God knows her heart and I leave all judging up to Him.
JWK: One last question to cap it off. You’ve worked with Regis Philbin and you’ve worked with Hoda Kotb. How are they different?
KLG: Plumbing. They just have different plumbing. They’re both fantastic human beings with incredible senses of humor and (are) great storytellers and I love them dearly. I pinch myself sometimes that I’ve been able to be so blessed two times to work with such incredible people — and have two hit shows! You know, at this point in my life to (be on) one of the fastest growing shows in daytime television is kind of miraculous. Miracles still happen!
JWK: Anything you’d like to add?
KLG: I just hope that people will understand that if Aimee were alive today this is exactly what she would be doing. She was a trailblazer. She broke the rules. She never let organized religion define her. She never let organized religion put her in chains. She was free and free indeed! If there’s anything I admire about her more than anything else it was the freedom that she had to live her faith. I’m not a fan of religion. Religion ties people up and binds them and puts them back in chains but faith — true relationship — releases us to be all what God ever intended us to be. That’s what I’m interested in.
JWK: So you’re not into religiosity.
KLG: I run for the hills from it! It’s the last thing I want to be a part of. It’s the last kind of person I want to be around. I want to be free and free indeed and life and life abundant!