The actors are taking a breather, and Kathie Lee Gifford looks perplexed. A line has been dropped from the show being rehearsed -- the big, ambitious musical Gifford wants to take to Broadway -- and she wants to know what happened to it.
"Hey," she says, her raspy voice, familiar from long years of workout in the perky precincts of morning TV, cutting through the din of the studio high above Eighth Avenue. "Where did that 'postpartum psychosis' go?"
At the other end of a row of folding chairs, director Eric Schaeffer is conferring with a stage manager and doesn't hear the question from his librettist and lyricist. "When did we decide," she asks again, finally catching his eye, "to take that out?"
It's a facet of the eternal give-and-take in the shaping of a piece of theater: The words, the words, the words, moans the writer. The pace, the pace, the pace, cries the director. Schaeffer, moonlighting from his longtime job as artistic director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, searches his memory for a moment and comes up with an answer that consigns the phrase to some long-forgotten incarnation of the show.
"About two weeks ago," he says.
Gifford allows herself a millisecond of mourning -- from her expression, it seems possible that the matter isn't entirely settled -- and puts down the pad and pen she has been holding all through the first act of "Saving Aimee." The musical, about the neurotic, wildly provocative evangelist of the '20s Aimee Semple McPherson, is so close to Gifford's heart that six years into her work on it she can still watch a rehearsal and well up from the impact. But watch is all she'll do: Surprisingly, she's not playing McPherson or any other role in the show.
McPherson, a Bible-thumping faith healer with the soul of an impresario -- a cross, say, between Billy Graham and P.T. Barnum -- has fascinated the 52-year-old Gifford since her college days at Oral Roberts University. Gifford is a born-again Christian, but it wasn't only McPherson's intense relationship with God that made such a powerful impression. Charged with perjury after her bizarre disappearance from a beach in Southern California -- she claimed she'd been drugged and kidnapped, while reporters and prosecutors smelled an affair -- McPherson was big-time fodder for the scandal sheets of her day.
Gifford's own acquaintance with bad press (remember the dirty laundry regarding her husband, Frank, the accusations about her clothing line being stitched in Third World sweatshops?) bound her in an intense way to McPherson. Gifford has been a lightning rod -- at times, a self-dramatizing one, for sure -- and she still bears the scars.
"I knew the dark, dark place you go when you're the object of all that attention," she says as she watches a cast of 22, in jeans and T-shirts, singing her lyrics and reciting her dialogue.
"Saving Aimee" -- it had been called "Hurricane Aimee" until Katrina hit and the title suddenly seemed flip and inappropriate -- is something akin to an artistic mission for Gifford. In the cause, she enlisted Schaeffer, whom she'd met about five years ago, when she was brought in as a once-a-week substitute for Carol Burnett in Schaeffer's short-lived 1999 Broadway production of the revue "Putting It Together," built around the songs of Stephen Sondheim.
Gifford and Schaeffer are in some ways an unlikely pair: she, the bubbly TV talk-show host and pop chanteuse (and once upon a time, Maryland's Junior Miss), and he, a self-effacing director known for staging the works of Sondheim and others in the converted garage off Interstate 395 that Signature has called home for a dozen years. Then again, Schaeffer does at times take on improbable projects. (He is, for instance, directing a national tour of "Barbie: the Musical" early next year.) He and Gifford do share a major goal, one that has long eluded them both. Real success on Broadway.
Is "Saving Aimee" their ticket to the Tonys? We shall see. The show, after five weeks of rehearsal in Manhattan, is now up on its feet, just outside the city, at the White Plains Performing Arts Center, where it is in the midst of a 10-day run that ends next Sunday. Reviewers are not invited. It's a chance, after workshops and rewrites, to assess what they've got. Gifford's company, Lamb Chop Productions, has put up some of the few hundred thousand bucks it takes to mount such a tryout. And she and Schaeffer have invited a bunch of Broadway types -- theater owners, producers, friends in the business -- to come to Westchester County to take a look.
It's a crucial moment, perhaps the pivotal moment, in the birthing process. Is the baby viable?
The aim at this point is "really to get theater owners on Broadway to say, 'Look, we have a house for you,' " Schaeffer says, naming the Holy Grail. He thinks a big bio-musical may be just the tonic for a Broadway stalled in "American Idol" mode, awash in shows whose brainstorm is to regurgitate the songbooks of pop and rock stars. "People are so sick of the jukebox musical," the director says. "They want a really good book musical."
Which Gifford and Schaeffer are seeking to provide. Thinking of the great songwriters of the American musical, Gifford does not immediately spring to mind as a potential placeholder in the pantheon. She acknowledges that she didn't view lyrics as her calling when she started churning them out a few years ago. But her composer friends insist she's much more of a showbiz multi-tasker than anyone gives her credit for, that she brings to the crafting of a musical the professionalism that informs her other abilities.
"She's a very talented girl," says pop composer David Pomeranz, one of two songwriters -- the other is David Friedman -- who collaborated with her on the score of "Saving Aimee." "People probably don't know that she's a painter, that she studied art in college. And she's spent her life being a musician. It's my personal hope that this will be the start of people really understanding that she's not just a TV personality, that she's a really, really good writer."
You stick your neck out, way out, when you write a musical, and Gifford seems resigned to the knowledge that where she's concerned, a guillotine is always waiting, just offstage. Earlier this year, she and Pomeranz unveiled their children's musical, "Under the Bridge," off-Broadway, and the critics were not impressed. In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood began his notice not with his take on her show, but on her celebrityhood -- an opportunity, perhaps, too irresistible to pass up. Calling the score "competent if generic," he described the authors as "dutiful if not unskilled students of musical-theater styles" and added that Gifford's lyrics were "doggedly rhymed if rarely graceful."
"Under the Bridge," though, was a mere appetizer. "Saving Aimee" is a far more complex undertaking, an effort to distill the experiences of an enigmatic American original on the stage. McPherson so dominates the show, and the part carries such a heavy vocal load, that a powerhouse actress had to be found. Schaeffer and Gifford think they located her in Carolee Carmello, a longtime Broadway singer-actress who's well known in theater circles but in the wider world travels under the radar.
The musical is a chronological account, from McPherson's birth in Canada in 1890 to her death from a barbiturates overdose 54 years later. It portrays a woman of profound contradiction: raised in a pious Pentecostal home, married multiple times, viewing work for the Lord as an expression of faith and an act of entertainment. (Her church, the Angelus Temple, headquarters of her International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, is still in Los Angeles.) In Gifford's straightforward if sympathetic libretto, McPherson is both a manipulator and a sincere deliverer of the Word. Though the show is interspersed with details about her trial on charges of conspiring to manufacture evidence, the portrait is of a woman driven by belief but demonized by other preachers and the media.
"The most important thing about Aimee's life," Gifford says, "is that she hated what religion did to people. She understood the difference between religion and faith."
When she brought the project to Schaeffer, the script was 180 pages long. She had material "for five musicals," she says.
"It felt more like a documentary," Schaeffer adds, sitting with Gifford during a lunch break. Over the years, songs composed separately by Friedman and Pomeranz were added and subtracted -- each has contributed about half the score -- and Schaeffer put Gifford to work, removing and condensing a lot of extraneous information.
"We feel like the whole structure is there now," Schaeffer says, adding that he did not bring the show to his own stage in Arlington chiefly because a run could not be built around Carmello's schedule -- she's soon to be featured on Broadway in "Lestat," a musical version of Anne Rice's "The Vampire Lestat." "Now, it's a matter of fine-tuning."
For Gifford, "Saving Aimee" seems, at least in part, an attempt to make sense of her own time in the limelight. She clearly feels a spiritual connection to her subject, a woman who found the limelight unbearably harsh. "The more I read about Aimee, the more I related to her story," she says. "Anybody who's been in the tabloid bull's-eye, they're the only ones who understand what it's like."