As impressionable teenagers, BeBe Winans and his sister CeCe traveled a remarkable God-focused path, from a gospel-infused Pentecostal home in Detroit to the stage of a Christian television ministry in Charlotte, presided over by none other than Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
Now their improbable road to tuneful evangelical fame, in the run-up to the Bakkers’ tabloid-frenzied trials and tribulations, becomes the trajectory of a musical. “Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story,” with new music by Winans himself and a book he wrote with director Charles Randolph-Wright, debuts in the spring in Atlanta before taking up residence for much of the summer at Arena Stage.
“It’s almost like experiencing an out-of-body experience,” the Grammy-winning BeBe Winans said by phone from Atlanta, where he’s working on music for “Greenleaf,” a new megachurch-set television series for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. “When you’re going through life, you don’t think your life is anything other than like anyone else’s. You have your ups and downs, so you never think of your life as a musical.”
With the assistance of Randolph-Wright, a frequent presence at Arena as both writer and director, the story of the teens’ years with the Bakkers, who brought them aboard as backup singers for their popular “The PTL Club” show, will be a major element of the musical. A sex scandal and revelations of financial improprieties would end Jim Bakker’s ministry — and send him to prison on multiple counts of mail and wire fraud. Still, audiences are not apt to get a negative impression of him or the often-lampooned Tammy Faye Bakker this time around.
“To this day, Jim Bakker is one of our dearest friends,” said Winans, who went on to a gospel recording career as a solo artist and with his sister. “And Tammy Faye became our mother. Thirty years after [“PTL”], when my sister and I were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first person I called was Jim Bakker.” Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker divorced in 1992, and she died in 2007. Jim Bakker lives in Branson, Mo., according to Randolph-Wright.
The production — which will be staged by Randolph-Wright at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre and run there from April 13 to May 15 before starting at Arena Stage in July — is cementing a new role for Arena as an outpost for summertime tryouts of musicals. In July and August, the company hosted the world premiere of “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Steven Levenson that became a critical and audience hit. The reception was such that plans for a run in the spring at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre were firmed up before the D.C. engagement ended.
Randolph-Wright, director of “Motown the Musical,” the retrospective of the Motown sound and the life of record producer Berry Gordy that makes its Washington premiere Dec. 1 at the National Theatre, has conducted workshops and readings of “Born for This” in Boston, New York , Atlanta and Charlotte. He said that as the piece was being developed, he felt ever more strongly that the narrative should not only focus on the Winans family’s deep connection to music — BeBe and CeCe’s older brothers sang as a gospel group — but also on the young Winanses’ time with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
“ ‘You have one of the greatest stories ever with Jim and Tammy,’ ” Randolph-Wright said he told Winans. “This was five minutes in the original musical. I said, ‘You need to do this story!’ ” As if the Winans family’s own story were not interwoven deeply enough into “Born for This,” two of its stars are Winanses, too. BeBe Winans’s nephew and niece, Juan and Deborah Joy Winans, will play BeBe and CeCe.
BeBe Winans still recalls those years at “The PTL Club” as deeply meaningful, even in the more traumatic times, when he came up against racism. A white cameraman, he said, confessed to him once that he’d been brought up to hate black people but that BeBe had helped to change his heart. “I’m 19 and this man is 37,” Winans recalled. “I found out that love was more powerful than hatred. What a great thing to learn.”
The show runs July 1 to Aug. 28 at Arena’s Kreeger Theater. Information about ticket sales will be released at a later date.