‘Today’ host spent years on musical about radio evangelist
“If you put Oprah with Madonna and Lady Gaga, you still wouldn’t have what Aimee was for her time,” says Kathie Lee Gifford, speaking about the subject of the Broadway musical the “Today” show host has written.
Aimee Semple McPherson, whose followers called her “Sister Aimee,” was a media pioneer in the 1920s and ’30s whose evangelical radio broadcasts from her million-dollar Angelus Temple in Los Angeles built her vast Foursquare Church.
“TIME magazine named her one of the most influential people of the 20th century,” Gifford says, “and yet nobody’s ever heard of her, except in the lyrics to ‘Hooray for Hollywood,’ — ‘where everyone from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple…’”
Gifford has spent a dozen years researching and writing the book and lyrics for the musical, which has had five different titles and several regional tryouts. It played the White Plains Performing Arts Center in 2005, weeks after Hurricane Katrina, prompting a hasty name change, from “Hurricane Aimee” to “Saving Aimee.” The current title (“Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson”), Gifford says, reflects the fact that there were scandals in Semple’s life, but also that her trailblazing career was viewed as scandalous.
“She was a farm girl who rose to prominence in religion, which women never did, and politics, which women never did, and, ultimately, in history.”
“Scandalous” follows Semple from her rebellious days in Canada to Hollywood to ministering “in the deepest sewer of human despair” to radio stardom, marriages, men and tabloid scandals, including a trial-of-the-century courtroom battle over her claims to have been kidnapped.
“She baptized Marilyn Monroe as a baby, she gave John Wayne his first acting job and Anthony Quinn played saxophone in her orchestra,” Gifford says. “Her commissary, during the Depression, saved 1.5 million people.”
Carolee Carmello, who plays Semple, says the character’s range — in age, history and the sweep of her story — was tantalizing, adding that her character was no saint. “I think when people are that brilliant, they’re going to have some things that are bristly,” Carmello says. “Because she was so single-minded, it gave her the ability to not see how hard it was going to be. She just wanted to do it and kept moving towards that final goal and it came true. It was a crazy thing to do, to build your own temple in the 1920s and to raise a million dollars.”
Carmello, whose Broadway resume includes “The Addams Family,” “Parade” and, until late last month, “Sister Act,” says Semple’s anthem — “Why Can’t I?” — comes early in the show. “She wonders why she can’t do anything she wants to do, why people are holding her back, and that becomes her philosophy throughout her whole life: If I set my mind to something I can do it. Why can’t I? There’s nothing that can stop me.”
“Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson” starts previews Oct. 13; opens Nov. 15. Neil Simon, 250 W. 52nd. www.scandalousonbroadway.com