NEW YORK — At the end of a long day, Kathie Lee Gifford offers a visitor a cup of coffee. Not wine, coffee.
"Would you like a skinny latte that I'm not going to drink?" she asks, sweetly. "I just realized it has caffeine. I get up so early that I will never get to sleep tonight if I drink it."
Gifford, forever the kind host, has every reason to need her rest these days: In addition to her gig on the often boozy fourth hour of the "Today" show, she's also putting the finishing touches on the lyrics and book of a new Broadway musical.
It's about the controversial 1920s-era Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson — a woman near and dear to Gifford's heart, even if most people haven't heard of her.
"It angers me that a woman so extraordinary, who did such amazing things, has fallen through the cracks of history," Gifford says. "I've written I think at least 10 musicals during the 12 years I've been writing because she lived 10 lives."
McPherson was a pioneer in radio evangelism who incorporated vaudeville elements in her sermons, once taking the stage dressed as a motorcycle officer. "Stop! You are breaking God's law!" she said.
Though considered the P.T. Barnum of the pulpit, she also fed millions during the Great Depression. Her followers remained loyal even after a mysterious five-week disappearance in 1926 and three failed marriages. She died of a drug overdose in 1944, with Time magazine naming her one of the most influential people of the 20th century.
When Gifford first heard stories about McPherson, her reaction was: No way. "I just remember thinking, 'Oh, please. Nobody lived a life like that,'" she says. "She broke every rule."
Gifford ticks off a list of wild McPherson moments. She baptized a baby Marilyn Monroe. She gave John Wayne his first acting job. Anthony Quinn played sax in her orchestra. Charlie Chaplin helped design her sets.
"It's hard for us to realize that she was the most famous person in the country back then," she says. "Oprah, Lady Gaga and Madonna put together were not what Aimee was then."
McPherson became something of an obsession for Gifford, who read everything she could on the preacher. She visited her Los Angeles temple 50 times and interviewed McPherson's children. She even dated McPherson's third husband's grandson, completely by accident.
"We were not destined for one another," says Gifford, laughing.
Gifford had originally written a musical that spanned all of McPherson's life and would require two actresses. "It was so demanding a role that I didn't think there was an actress alive who could play it," she says.
Enter Carolee Carmello, a Tony Award-nominated actress who asked Gifford if she'd consider rewriting the part for only one actress. Gifford thought about it and agreed. The musical now takes place over a span of 20 years.
"Ever since I rewrote the show for one actress, in my mind there was only one actress who could do it and that was Carolee," says Gifford. Adds Carmello, who has stuck with the project for seven years: "It's our baby. We've been pregnant a long time with this child."
The show, with some 20 songs by David Friedman and David Pomeranz, has changed its name over the years — "Hurricane Aimee" and "Saving Aimee" were both abandoned and now it's "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson." It comes to Broadway after a production in Seattle. Now in previews, it will open Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Gifford previously supplied the book, lyrics and some of the music to "Under the Bridge," an adaptation of a children's book that made its off-Broadway debut in 2005. This time, only one song that's entirely Gifford's has made the cut — one she laughingly calls the "Dirty Irish Drinking Song."
Carmello, who recently played Mother Superior in "Sister Act," finds herself playing another person of faith, an odd twist for an actress who is an atheist. But McPherson intrigues Carmello.
"I admire people who feel passionately about anything — someone who devotes their life to painting or devotes their life to bowling, whatever it is," she says. "If you feel that strongly about something and you follow it to the nth degree, that's brilliant because so many people in this world kind of wander around."
Though one of the lead producers of "Scandalous" is the Foursquare Foundation, which is affiliated with McPherson's church, Gifford insists the church has had no input in the story or music.
"They have absolutely no say — no producer has any say — in terms of content. None," she says. Gifford says she was even surprised when they signed on. "If you ask their church, I think you would say that more than half the people aren't happy about this. We don't whitewash Amy's story."
Indeed, the musical opens with McPherson on trial for perjury and doesn't flinch at exposing her messier moments. Gifford says it's a musical about someone who was able to heal others while spiraling out of control.Comment on this story
"She had her hypocritical moments, as we all do, but to just dismiss her as a phony is wrong," says Gifford. "In our culture today, we tend to dismiss any person of faith as either an idiot or a phony. That's as ugly to me as homophobia or racism. It's really unfair. There are deeply sincere people in every faith."
And despite the rough patches in the remarkable life of McPherson, Gifford sees a moral for us all.
"There's a message for people who feel hopeless right now, that have screwed up their lives, that have made a mess of things and are ready to give up," she says. "There is hope, there is hope."
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