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. “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.
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.”
Gifford had originally written a musical that spanned all of McPherson’s life and required 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.
The show, Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, comes to Broadway after a production in Seattle. Now in previews, it will open Nov. 15 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
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.