As anyone who knows her from morning television can attest, Kathie Lee Gifford has an eye-opening anecdote for every occasion. Today, the Today co-host is delightfully oversharing over lunch at Sardi's. "My dad always used to tell me, 'Honey, find something you love to do and then figure out a way to get paid for it,'" she recalls, sipping a glass of white wine. "Now I've done everything in this business but porn, and at this point I doubt there would be any offers."
Perhaps less salacious than skin flicks, Gifford's latest showbiz gig is as book writer and lyricist for Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, a long-gestating musical about the world's first superstar evangelist. With music by David Friedmanand David Pomeranz and direction by David Armstrong, Scandalous opens Nov. 15 following previews from Oct. 13 at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre.
Blessed with charisma not unlike Gifford's, McPherson found Hollywood fame in the '20s and '30s as a healer and media mogul. Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of the 20th century. "She was a fearless, fierce force of nature in feminine form, and we haven't seen anyone like her before or since," raves Gifford, who first learned about the Pentecostal preacher while studying at Oral Roberts University. "She was a genius, and that's why I needed a genius like Carolee Carmello to play her."
Carmello, who reprises the role she played in last year's pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, has been with Scandalous — previously called Saving Aimee — since an early production in 2005. "Kathie Lee has put her faith in me, and there's a lot to live up to," says Carmello, a two-time Tony Award nominee (for Parade and Lestat). "Between honoring this amazing pioneer's life and honoring Kathie Lee's passionate devotion to telling this story, it's a big responsibility."
"If by 'passionate' you mean 'obnoxious,'" Gifford jokes.
A recording artist with roots in gospel music, Gifford made her Broadway debut in the 1999 Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together, but insists she never considered playing McPherson herself. "Half of finding out what you are in life is finding out what you're not, and I, sir, am no Carolee Carmello," she says.
Carmello's powerful pipes help bring the pageantry of McPherson's dramatic sermons to life onstage; the show uses the evangelist's most famous sermon, "The Story of My Life," as a device to help tell her tale. But Gifford, a born-again Christian since the age of 12, is quick to note that the show isn't just for churchgoing, God-fearing folk. "Aimee may preach, but the show's not preachy," Gifford explains. "The last thing we want people to think is that they're coming to church. They're coming to see a razzamatazz Broadway musical about a historical figure who did unbelievable things."
Having recently broken out of the habit as Mother Superior in Broadway's Sister Act, Carmello is likewise unconcerned about the potential of Scandalous scaring off a secular audience. "Our creative team includes all religious persuasions," says Carmello, who considers herself an atheist. "It's a good cross-section of our country and our audience, so we all throw in our two cents about what feels comfortable to watch and comfortable to play."
Adds Gifford, "The show doesn't have a religious message, but it is spiritual in that it reflects Aimee's message of 'God loves you, no matter what.'"
Despite McPherson's saintly accomplishments, many have written her off as a sinful phony due to a string of public scandals, including divorces, rumored love affairs and an addiction to painkillers that ultimately resulted in a fatal overdose at the age of 53. Accused of faking her own kidnapping, she was famously embroiled in a courtroom trial that inspired the 1976 TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee starring Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis.
"She was a woman of sincere faith, but she was also sincerely flawed, as is every person in this room," Gifford announces firmly, perking up ears at nearby tables. "The problem is that most people, if they know of Aimee at all, only know her from the tabloids. If you only knew 'tabloid Kathie Lee,' you wouldn't really know me either. Was she a true woman of God or just one hell of a woman? I think it's possible to be both."
Gifford may embrace McPherson "warts and all," but she insists there's nothing scandalous about the Scandalous lead producers: Foursquare Foundation, which is affiliated with the Foursquare Church that McPherson founded, and conservative Republican funders Dick and Betsy DeVos. "When somebody comes to you in today's financial environment and wants to give you money, you don't ask about their religion or political party," says Gifford, who clarifies that her producers have no artistic control. "I had two words: 'Thank you.' And two more words: 'Sign here.'"
Playbill, October 2012 issue.
Kathie Lee Gifford, The Saintly and Scandalous Scribe, Talks About Her Passion for Musicals and More
Retracing her long road as librettist-lyricist of Broadway's Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, "Today" co-host Kathie Lee Gifford opens up about how she found star Carolee Carmello, her unusual lead producers and her own purpose in life.
By Brandon Voss
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.
Playbill.com: 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?
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?
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?
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.
There are many historical figures that I love and admire, but I can't imagine devoting more than 12 years of my life to writing a show about them.
In fairness, I didn't think it would take 12 years. I thought maybe a week or two. [Laughs.] The first thing I wrote, Under the Bridge, which was based on a children's book, practically wrote itself in about 10 days, and it only took about a year before we were Off-Broadway at the Zipper Theatre. I thought, "Well, this isn't so tough." It's a lot harder to try to tell an epic tale about an incredible woman like Aimee that isn't from source material. I've probably written about 10 musicals total about Aimee; at least 40 songs have come and gone.
The musical's title has also changed quite a bit, hasn't it?
We've changed titles about five times. As our story would change, the title would change. Hurricane Aimee was a good title, but hurricane Katrina hit right before we did an earlier production, so the title seemed cruel. Scandalous is more provocative than [the later title of] Saving Aimee; it refers to what she went through as the object of scandal, but she also scandalized the church world with what she did in the pulpit. When she preached on the Garden of Eden, for example, she would find the sexiest man and woman in Hollywood and put them in fig leaves — with real palm trees and real animals from the Los Angeles zoo. In our never-ending search for the best story, we've focused on Aimee the feminist, the sex addict, the drug addict… Now we've chiseled everything away so we have the most accessible story about Aimee for a secular audience, and that's who I really wanted to bring her story to.
So Scandalous isn't just for churchgoing, God-fearing folk.
I don't want people to be afraid of her because she was a woman of faith, any more than they should be afraid of Maria von Trapp. The Sound of Music isn't about Catholicism; it's about a Catholic woman. Here we're dealing with Pentecostalism, which is just the backdrop for this amazing woman's story. And if you know anything about Pentecostalism, it's by far the most theatrical of any faith that I know of. Gifts of the spirit are pretty exciting, visual things. We don't delve into that by any means, but we do put her in that world because that was her world.
Those theatrical Pentecostal sermons must lend themselves beautifully to the stage.
Oh, yeah, and we see many of them in the show — Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Moses and the Pharoah. Aimee knew people were bored to death with church, so she created a church that she would like to go to — one with excitement and drama and pageantry and fabulous music. She figured if it was good enough for the Bible, it was good enough for Angelus Temple. Aimee's most famous sermon, which she preached every year, was called "The Story of My Life." We actually use that sermon as a device in the show to help tell her story. Aimee may preach, but the show's not preachy. The last thing we want people to think is that they're coming to church. They're coming to see a razzamatazz Broadway musical about a historical figure who did unbelievable things.
What are some unbelievable things that people should know about Aimee?
She had thousands of healings documented in the press, who usually don't like to document such things. She was kidnapped many, many times — twice by the Ku Klux Klan. We know that for sure because one time she was kidnapped with a woman, Frances Wayne from The Denver Post, who happened to be interviewing her when they both got thrown into the back of a sedan. She also gave John Wayne his first acting job. She baptized Marilyn Monroe as a baby. Even though he was an atheist, Charlie Chaplin was her good friend and helped design sets for her pageants. She was amazing at promotion and spreading her message. She was a genius, and that's why I needed a genius like Carolee Carmello to play her.
Carmello has been with the musical since an early production in 2005 at New York's White Plains Performing Arts Center. How hands-on were you in her casting?
I wish I could say that I found Carolee, but Carolee was this gem I'd never heard of. I didn't have time to follow theatre a whole lot, and Carolee wasn't originating as many roles then; somehow I missed her in Parade. The wonderful producer Pierre Cosette was sitting on my sofa one day, listening to the songs we'd written for — I can't even remember what the show was called at the time — and he said, "There's only one actress who can play this role: Carolee Carmello." Pierre had known Carolee from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Before her involvement, two different actresses played Aimee at different stages in her life. It was Carolee, because she knew that she could play it, who had the idea to make the two parts into one.
Was there ever a point in the writing process that you considered playing Aimee yourself?
Oh, please. Half of finding out what you are in life is finding out what you're not, and I, sir, am no Carolee Carmello. Maybe her mother.
But when you first started working on the show, you were younger than Carolee is now. Playing the part never crossed your mind?
Not for one moment. First of all, the score is so demanding; I have four notes and Carolee has four octaves. She's so good in this. I've been in this business forever, and I've been lucky to work with so many talented people, but I've never met anyone like her. Carolee's a thoroughbred. I know War Horse is already on Broadway, but it's going to be in two theatres this fall! [Laughs.] But maybe if we run a long time, I could start making cameos as Louella Parsons.
Evangelicals have gotten a bad reputation over the years as greedy, phony hucksters, and, as you mentioned, Aimee's intentions within the church have likewise been questioned. How do you view her motives?
Those phonies exist, but they exist in every world. I know some phony plumbers, but I also know some excellent ones. We single out people of faith because they're supposed to live up to a higher standard. The problem is that most people, if they know of Aimee at all, only know her from the tabloids. If you only knew "tabloid Kathie Lee," you wouldn't really know me either. People who have really studied her life and seen what she did all those years on the road know that Aimee wasn't in it for the money. She never took up an offering at her tent sermons. The one million dollars it took in 1923 to build her temple, Angelus Temple, came from the Ku Klux Klan — which is an interesting story in our show, because she hated everything they stood for — and from the Gypsies, because Aimee healed the Gypsy king's mother, and the Gypsies followed her in caravans from then on, throwing jewelry at her feet and calling her Madonna. You can't make this stuff up.
You believe her heart was always in the right place?
No, not all the time. She was human. But there's no question in my mind that Aimee started out as sincere as you can be. Her first husband, Robert James Semple, represented all that's good about a faith-filled person, and he was her first model of what it looked like if you lived your faith. Then she gets all this success, because she's brilliant and gifted, and she sets her sights on Hollywood, because she was a visionary. She was a woman of sincere faith, but she was also sincerely flawed, as is every person in this room. So she goes through a true crisis of faith that we really haven't seen onstage since A Man for All Seasons. By the time she gets to Hollywood, she's a superstar, and with that comes money, Paris fashions, and temptations. She's got two huge vulnerabilities: loneliness, because she chooses men who never live up to her first husband, and her addiction to painkillers.
And it was that drug addiction that eventually killed her?
People talk about her drug addiction, but here's the truth of it. She had two children, but after her second child was born, she went through seven operations for a botched hysterectomy that left her in pain for the rest of her life. She had severe arthritis. She also battled horrible insomnia and went for days with no sleep at all. Barbiturates at that time were a bad science, and she ultimately died of an accidental overdose. From all accounts, she forgot how many she'd had and took more. She tried to call her doctor and her secretary, Emma Schaffer, never got through, and ended up being discovered by her son Rolf the next morning. She was buried on her 54th birthday.
Does Scandalous focus on Aimee's Hollywood rise and fall?
You can't understand what she became unless you understand where she came from. She was a Canadian farm girl. Early on in the process in White Plains, some huge people in the theatre industry told me, "Get rid of that stuff in Canada. Who cares about that?" I was tempted, but to just tell the story of Aimee in Hollywood is to tell a diminished story that would not be fair to her. And it's not as interesting. I want to see the climb, the challenge, and everything else.
Arguably her most negative tabloid attention dealt with her infamous 1926 kidnapping trial. How does Scandalous address that scandal?
The show opens on the night before the verdict in the trial. She disappeared and said she was kidnapped and held for ransom for five weeks in Mexico, but the District Attorney, who was trying to make a name for himself at the time, said she was actually up at her love nest in Carmel. Years later, the District Attorney was found guilty of embezzlement and all kinds of things, and Aimee went to visit him in prison.
Even though she had been kidnapped in the past, her story about those five weeks does sound fishy.
Yeah, it's fishy, but hers is the only story out of all the witnesses that never changed. The trial used to be a far bigger deal in our show than it is now; we realized that it really wasn't the most important thing. We can all have our own ideas about Aimee, but the truth is that we'll never know the whole truth, and that mystery is interesting to me. I want people to leave the theatre hungry for more information about this incredible woman. Let people decide for themselves if she was really in Carmel with Ken Ormiston when she said she was kidnapped. I can't control all the different ways that people will perceive her, and I find that exciting.
What about Aimee's life and trials do you most relate to?
I certainly understand tabloid attacks, and I know what it's like to be accused of something you didn't do — that's probably where we have the most similarities. I'm mostly drawn to her for her resilience. She was conflicted in so many ways because she wanted to be a woman of God, a good mother, a good wife. When you're really good at something, something else suffers. I can relate to that. Because of the long hours and time spent away, theatre is not conducive to a happy family life. My husband jokingly calls himself "Mac" now, after Aimee's second husband, whom she basically dumped and abandoned to go pursue her dream.
You were raised in the Jewish tradition but became a born-again Christian at the age of 12, and you've been very forthcoming about your faith over the years. Did your own religious beliefs inform the writing of the show?
Of course they did in some way, but more than anything, as a writer, I just wanted to be fair to this woman. Was she a true woman of God or just one hell of a woman? I think it's possible to be both. Her imperfections are fascinating to me, but she kept getting up and doing what she was called to do in this world. No matter what you think about her or where she was during those five weeks, you have to be fair in looking at her accomplishments. She saved one and a half million people from starving to death during the Great Depression. She sold more war bonds than any movie star in Hollywood during World War II. She started the Foursquare Church, one of the fastest-growing denominations in the world. Her radio station that she started, when everyone laughed at her and tried to run her out of L.A., sold in 2003 for $250 million. We do this in our culture all the time, but you can't define someone by one single event or one mistake in their life.
One of the lead producers of Scandalous is the Foursquare Foundation, which is affiliated with the Foursquare Church that Aimee founded. One might assume that their involvement would make the musical somewhat biased.
I am stunned that the Foursquare Foundation wanted to be a part of this, because we are so honest about Aimee and her weaknesses. I think it shows great courage and vision on their part.
Nothing in the show had to change because of that partnership?
Oh, my gosh, no. I wouldn't have changed anything. Not one producer has any artistic control over the piece. It would upset me if anyone thought I was on the take in any way. I cannot be bought. You can't shut me up if I believe something, and you can't pay me enough to say something I don't believe.
So the Foursquare Foundation had to accept the show's depiction of Aimee as is, warts and all?
It's not interesting theatre unless the story is warts and all. Billy Graham's life, let's face it, would make the world's most boring musical, because he just loved God and served him his whole life. Hello, that's boring. Aimee gave us new fodder every time she turned around. The biggest problem was figuring out what to leave out.
Fair enough, but I would guess that Foursquare Foundation cares less about funding interesting theatre and more about honoring Aimee's legacy.
There was actually a huge to-do at the Foursquare headquarters when they were first contemplating being a part of this. I would say that half of the leadership in the church wanted nothing to do with the musical. Luckily, the other half was delighted, and they made the final decision. They'd seen the show in Seattle, warts and all, and they understood that this was Aimee's story and that I had been fair to her legacy. I had lunch in New York with the gentleman that runs the Foundation after he heard about the show. He hadn't even read it at the time, but he said it was something they wanted to be a part of because they're proud of their founder.
Here's something taken directly from Foursquare Foundation's website: "Since its inception in 2005, the Foursquare Foundation has funded projects in over 103 countries on six continents. Projects have directly resulted in seeing 5,521,073 people brought to Jesus Christ, according to the Foundation's 2010 annual report." If this is the same foundation funding Scandalous, is one of the goals of the musical to bring people to Jesus?
Well, they're not talking about Broadway. This is the first time they've invested in Broadway. I think they understand that this is a critical time in our culture, and this woman's story is helpful. There's a whole conversation today about women's empowerment, and we need more stories about women who did amazing things.
Your other lead producers are Dick and Betsy DeVos, conservative Republicans who have donated to various religious and far-right organizations, so you've attached the show to producers with deep roots in both the Evangelical church and the Republican Party. Because the Broadway community is a largely liberal one, were you at all concerned about what kind of message that might send?
Not the least bit. When somebody comes to you in today's financial environment and wants to give you money, you don't ask about their religion or political party. That's not my business. Dick and Betsy DeVos love theatre. My dear friend Emily is Betsy's sister, and Emily said, "I think Dick and Betsy would love this. Can I invite them to your next workshop?" I said, "I'd be delighted." They came to the workshop and liked it enough to invest in the Seattle production. Then I learned that they also made a very large endowment to the Kennedy Center, and they fund ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. We're just a piece of the philanthropic work that they do and their love of the arts. They're a beautiful couple and I'm grateful for them, but I've never talked to them about their politics or beliefs.
Whether or not you've had that conversation, their conservative politics and controversial funding record may not sit well with everyone in the New York theatergoing community.
I hope we're not getting to the point that we start boycotting people just because they don't agree with every single thing we do. Look, we needed a lot of money for this show, so whoever wanted to give us money, I had two words: "Thank you." And two more words: "Sign here." Are people talking about our producers?
There's been some buzz after an item in the Times that called out your producers as "unusual newcomers."
Well, they're definitely weird producers, and I think that's OK to say. I'm just grateful to have producers. I honestly don't know what their agendas are because I've never discussed it with them, except for the gentleman who runs the Foursquare Foundation, who said he thinks it's important for people to know who their founder was.
You must know that it can be hard for some people to separate product and politics. After all, Chick-fil-A's antigay stance doesn't make their chicken any less delicious, but gay consumers still have the right to not eat it anymore.
It's sad, because I believe that everybody's rights are guaranteed under the Constitution. Every citizen of America has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That's the beauty of our Constitution, but it also guarantees freedom of religion, and we've got to start learning how to live in harmony with each other. Whether we agree or disagree, we have to have respect. That's what Aimee did. She had everybody at her church, including homosexuals. Anthony Quinn once said that nobody did more for the Latino community than Aimee did. She would go into the brothels and invite the hookers to come to her meetings, and she would tell them, "I'll save you a special seat." She'd go into the bars and invite the drunks too. She went into the deepest sewers of despair and told people that there was hope. She didn't judge anyone, but the irony is that she was judged so harshly. She was crucified by the press and by the status quo religious order because she loved people so much and had the audacity to think they had a place in God's kingdom. The beauty of Aimee's message is that it was one of tolerance and love — come as you are and see what God can do for you. We should applaud her for that.
Aimee's children, Rolf and Roberta, both died in recent years, but they were still alive when you began working on the musical. Were you able to speak to them about their mother?
I sat with both of them for years, and it was invaluable. Her son actually became pastor of her church when she died. I totally had their blessing. My assistant Christine found Roberta — or Birdie, as she was called. I didn't think she'd answer the phone, but I called her up and asked if we could have lunch. She said, "I don't do lunch, but you can come over." I said, "Can I bring you anything?" She said, "No flowers. Bring cookies." As I'm getting off the phone with her, she says, "Aren't you forgetting something? Name That Tune?" She had rebelled against her mother's faith and married a Jewish violinist named Harry Salter, who went on to create Name That Tune, which was the show I got my big break on in the '70s. What a coincidence! It was like The Twilight Zone.
What was that first meeting like?
She lived up in the 90s off of Central Park West, and she had one of those old apartments where you come right up into the apartment. The first time I met with her, there she was, about four-feet-tall, with her little walker. She was a dynamo of a little lady. At the end of a four-hour session, my assistant Christine and I get into the elevator. As the doors are closing — it was like a shot out of a movie — Birdie pointed her bent little finger at me and said, "You. You're the one who's gonna tell mama's story." And the doors closed. And I'm ashamed of this, and I shouldn't have said it, but I just looked at Christine and said, "Holy shit." The weight of it all hit me. I wanted to be fair to this woman's legacy, but I also knew the show would not be interesting unless it was honest.
Did Birdie get to see the musical?
She saw it in White Plains; Carolee met her there too. There was a terrible storm, and we held the show for her to get there, but yes, she did get to see the show in its very early stage.
Have you watched any of the films based on Aimee's life? Most notably, the 1976 TV movie The Disappearance of Aimee starred Faye Dunaway as Aimee and Bette Davis as her mother.
Yeah, it was campy, but it was fun to watch. All they did was focus on the kidnapping trial, and I'm bored with that. Her story is so much more interesting than that. I didn't want to define her by five weeks of her life that we still don't know much about. I've seen some other things too, and I just didn't think they were really well done. I remember thinking, "Why can't we tell this story well?" I think people are hungry for a great story. I know I hunger for something original. That's why I loved Once so much. I was sitting with Tommy Tune at Jimmy Nederlander's 90th birthday party and we talked about Once for three hours. I hope it portends a time where we'll keep encouraging people to create new, original stories that we haven't heard before.
How did your collaboration begin with songwriters David Pomeranz and David Friedman on Scandalous?
Before I was writing the book, we were just writing songs. I'd just start writing a song with whoever was at my house at the time. The first songs were written with David Friedman — songs that are no longer in the show — and then I started writing with David Pomeranz, who had written a song with David Zippel called "Born for You," which was the title song on a big album that I did when I left the morning show with Regis [Philbin]. I loved David Pomeranz's music the same way that I loved David Friedman's, but they're very different kinds of writers. I knew that we would have lots of different musical genres in this musical, so I wanted to write it with both of them. I'm such an idiot; I had no idea that people didn't really work like that! They weren't a team, but they've become a team, and they're represented in the show pretty equally. I always just gave a song to the person whose skill set I thought would work best for it.
Did you write any of the music in Scandalous?
Oh, I actually wrote the best song in the score — a dirty Irish drinking song. Write what you know, right? We needed a scene where the passengers get really rowdy on the boat ride to China, so I said, "Let me go in my trunk." I had just been to Ireland and written this song. We listened to it and said, "What the hey?" None of us thought we'd ever get to Broadway at that point, so I never thought I'd have to explain why I wrote the dirty Irish drinking song. The show also includes a little piece of a song that Aimee wrote. She wrote well over a thousand songs, and 13 operas.
You've mentioned Off-Broadway's Under the Bridge, which you also wrote with David Pomeranz, but you've actually written a number of other pieces for the stage as well.
Compared to my whole career, it's a new chapter, but yes, I have. I'm actually meeting with people in L.A. about Under the Bridge being made into a film, which I'm very excited about. I wrote Key Pin It Real, a junior high school musical with David Friedman. I wrote several songs for the musical Hats, and I did the lyrics for an It's a Wonderful Life adaptation with John McDaniel. I have about four other musicals in various stages of development, but the last few years I've been focused on nothing but Aimee. Marvin Hamlisch and I had talked about working together on In Canaan's Eyes, an ensemble musical where everybody gets a big song, but we never got to, and it breaks my heart. At least I had him as a friend.
You're lucky to have the platform and built-in fan base of Today, on which you announced that Scandalous was coming to Broadway. How often will you be plugging Scandalous on the air?
As much as they will let me. I'm stunned what they let me say and do. I don't know if you've noticed, but the fourth hour [of Today] is a lot different from the first three. They're so supportive. When I originally signed with Today, I only signed for a year. I said, "If anything happens with this musical I'm writing about Aimee — or if anything happens with my daughter, who's an actress — I'm gone." I really didn't want to come back to television, because I loved writing for theatre. Every contract negotiation since then has had the Aimee musical involved in it, and they've been so accommodating, especially when we took the show to Seattle last year.
Is there such a thing as too much self-promotion?
Oh, yeah. Nobody likes that. I don't want to be too obnoxious. But I have a secret weapon in my co-host, Hoda Kotb, because without me even bringing it up, she'll look for an opportunity to say something like, "And tickets are on sale now, right?" She's been so supportive. It's lovely that I don't always have to toot the show's horn, because now there are other people who believe in it who are tooting it for me.
You often use Today to spread the word about other plays and musicals that you see on a regular basis. You're always very positive and supportive of new work.
If you watch me regularly, you can tell when I really love something or when I'm just trying to say something nice, but I will never knock a show. I know how hard theatre is, especially now that I've been involved in so many aspects of it — acting, producing, and writing — so the last thing I'd ever do after seeing a show is rip it. You can always find something positive to say. I know the dreams wrapped up in these things, and I don't want to put people out of jobs. People don't need one more person kicking them.
Do you remember when you first fell in love with live theatre?
My mom and dad changed my life when they took me to the Shady Grove Music Fair in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There was a theatre in the round, and we went to see Camelot. It was the hottest summer. I had an aisle seat, and Guinevere was waiting to make an entrance. Her costume was right up against my bare arm, and I could see the sweat on her arms, and I could see the concentration on her face as she stayed in character. She even smelled like Guinevere. People talk about the smell of the greasepaint, but for me it was the smell of Guinevere. I've never been the same since. I always thought my career would take me to Broadway, and that's really what I always wanted to do as an actress, but, you know.
You did make it to Broadway in the 1999 Sondheim revue Putting It Together.
Yes, eventually, a long, long time later. I had actually turned down Victor/Victoria before that. I had a house in Colorado, and Henry Mancini came up the mountain in a whiteout to ask me to take over for Julie Andrews on Tuesday nights so that she didn't have to do eight shows a week. I was so honored and blown away.
Do you regret declining his offer?
No, my daughter had just been born; she was one-year-old. I was very torn, but I thought, "Broadway is always going to be there, but my daughter's never going to be this age again." I couldn't believe I had to say "no" to Mary Poppins! Seven years later, Carol Burnett asked me to do the same thing in Putting It Together, and then it seemed right. At that time my daughter was in school, and she didn't like me that much anyway, so I figured she wouldn't really miss me. That was one of the great experiences of my life: Working with Stephen Sondheim, working opposite George Hearn — who is now in Scandalous — and singing those songs on Broadway, it's hard to describe it. I'm still amazed that I got such an opportunity.
Next you played Miss Hannigan in a limited engagement of Annie at Madison Square Garden in 2006.
That was 5,300 people per performance, so it was a different kind of theatre; you had to make your performance big enough for the kid in the last seat to see it. Doing nine shows a week during Christmas for five weeks was rough. My family was down in Florida, and I'm on the phone, going, "What have I done?" [Singing.] "Little girls…" But my dad always used to tell me, "Honey, find something you love to do and then figure out a way to get paid for it." Now I've done everything in this business but porn, and at this point I doubt there would be any offers.
And now you're about to open Scandalous on Broadway. After such a long journey, how does it feel?
I can't believe it. I know we're a little fish coming into a big shark-infested ocean, and I'm incredibly excited and grateful. I'm so grateful to the Nederlanders for giving us the amazing Neil Simon Theatre. Jimmy Nederlander, Sr.'s encouragement is the actually the reason I started writing the book all those years ago. Jimmy has always loved the show, and he kept encouraging me every step of the way to keep working on the book and making it better. I like that we did this the old-fashioned way and didn't just say, "We're coming to Broadway!"
With your resources and connections, you probably could have brought Scandalous to Broadway sooner, but instead you've paid your dues and crafted a stronger product in the process.
Right, we've been in line for 12 years doing the work, and I'm still doing the work. I'll never forget what Sondheim said to me when I was doing Putting It Together. I had one run-through with the cast, tech, and orchestra on a Friday afternoon. They thought there was going to be a stagehand strike over the weekend, and I was supposed to make my Broadway debut on Tuesday night. I went back to my dressing room for notes with Stephen — can you imagine? — and I told him, "Stephen, this strike doesn't look good, so if I never make my Broadway debut, I just want you to know that I've gotten everything out of this experience that I could've ever hoped for." He looked at me and said, "Because you did the work." That's how I feel about Scandalous: It's a slog, but the journey is the joy.
What about the destination?
I hope our destination is wonderful too, and I hope we run a long, long time. But nothing's forever, so I just hope that people find in the show something of value for them personally. I just want people to walk away from the show knowing that they're valuable. That's a good goal, isn't it? The show doesn't have a religious message — I hate the word religious and what it means in today's vernacular — but it's spiritual in that it reflects Aimee's message of "God loves you, no matter what." That's a message we need today. You can even leave God out of it; just know that you're special and have a purpose.
What's your purpose, Kathie Lee?
Five or six years ago, before Paul Newman's death, I was invited to a fundraiser for the Westport Country Playhouse, where his wife was artistic director. Paul and I had become friends years earlier. It was a bitter cold Sunday night, I didn't want to go, but I went. I didn't know a soul there. Then Paul Newman walks in. There's a big hubbub, and I knew he needed another hanger-on like a hole in the head, so I went into the next room in search of a glass of wine. About 15 minutes later, I feel a tap on my back. Paul gets down on one knee, takes my right hand in both of his hands, kisses it, and looks up at me with those eyes. I say, "OK, now I can die." As he's getting up, I say, "Oh, Paul, how are you?" He says, "I have a pulse. At this age, that's a good thing." I remember going home and being so moved by the experience.
Kisses from Paul Newman!
Sure, what woman wouldn't remember that forever? But his words hit me on a more profound level. Paul Newman could've been anywhere and doing anything that night, but here he was at 80 years old trying to put something good into the universe, even if it's just an old theatre in Connecticut. I've taken my metaphorical pulse every day since then, and as long as I have one, I have a purpose: There's still good for me to do. There's still someone who needs to be told that they're special. I don't want people to live in defeat. I don't want people to let the world define who they are. I want to tell people, "God loves what he created and you're it." If that's a sinister agenda, OK, you caught me.
Playbill.com, October 2012.