The Tammy Faye Bakker renaissance shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, it was none other than superstar singer/composer Elton John who came up with the idea to base a musical on the late former televangelist. The project has been gestating for about a decade.
Bakker presided over the PTL religious TV empire in the Charlotte area with her then-husband, Jim Bakker, in the 1970s and ‘80s, and was well-known for her big makeup, big eyelashes and big heart. That empire eventually crumbled under the weight of scandals that landed Jim Bakker in prison.
But if you want to see the new show, you’ll have to cross the pond: the “Tammy Faye” world premiere was at the Ameida Theatre in London. After nearly two weeks of previews, opening night was Oct. 26, and the production was scheduled to run through Dec. 3.
The musical comes on the heels of last year’s high-profile biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which was filmed in the Charlotte area and landed Jessica Chastain an Oscar for the title role. And that movie took inspiration from a 2000 documentary of the same name.
Like John, Bakker is an icon of the gay community. When few in the evangelical community wanted anything to do with people with AIDS in the 1980s, she warmly interviewed a gay pastor with HIV on the PTL show. John, who is gay, started an AIDS foundation that now is in its 30th year.
He most recently was in Charlotte on Sept. 18 as part of his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road/The Final Tour.” John remains on tour and was not available to answer questions, a spokeswoman said.
But on opening night he tweeted, “Wishing the whole #TammyFaye cast and team the best of luck for tonight’s press night back in London@AlmeidaTheatre! Sorry I can’t be there but I’m sure you’ll break a leg!”
All About ‘Tammy Faye’ the Musical
James Graham, who wrote the script, told The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. that the Bakkers’ story is “almost Biblical … one of fame and greed, and redemption.” Here are some key things to know about the show:
The plot: The musical focuses on the rise of televangelism in the U.S., the Bakkers getting their own TV show, and their rise and subsequent fall from grace, said Alexander Milward, head of press and PR at Almeida theater, in an email interview with The Charlotte Observer.
The creative team: John has a number of other musical theater credits, including composing the scores for “The Lion King” and “Aida.” He’s also adapting “The Devil Wears Prada” for the stage. Lyrics for “Tammy Faye” are by Jake Shears, a Grammy-nominated lead singer for the band Scissor Sisters. Rupert Goold, artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, directed “Tammy Faye.” And Graham, the book writer, has written more than a dozen shows, including “Finding Neverland.”
The stars: Katie Brayben plays Tammy Faye and Andrew Rannels is Jim Bakker. Brayben won the top British theater award, an Olivier, for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” Rannels received Tony nominations for his roles in the Broadway shows “The Book of Mormon” and “Falsettos,” and co-starred in the TV show “Girls.”
The songs. John and Shears collaborated on 18 songs, including “Satellite of God,” “Bring Me the Face of Tammy Baker,” “Look How Far We’ve Fallen” and “If You Came to See Me Cry.” Graham told The Guardian he occasionally heard musical riffs in the score that reminded him of vintage ‘70s Elton John: “I get shivers, the hairs stand up on my arm, because it really transports you and I think an audience is going to really find that thrilling.”
The Charlotte Observer connection: One of the characters in the show is “Charles Shepherd,” an Observer reporter investigating fraud claims against Jim Bakker. In real life, Charles Shepard led the Observer’s coverage about financial mismanagement and Jim Bakker’s affair with former church secretary Jessica Hahn. Those stories helped bring down PTL and the Bakkers, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
Other Carolinas connections: Some of the sets for the musical appear to reflect the old PTL studio in Fort Mill, S.C. Additional characters in the show include Hahn as well as the Rev. Billy Graham. (The actor who plays him, Peter Caulfield, also appears in the roles of “Larry Flint” and Pontius Pilate in “Tammy Faye.”)
Other characters: After divorcing Jim Bakker, Tammy Faye later married contractor Roe Messner, but he’s not a character in the show. Jerry Falwell, the pope, Jesus and Colonel Sanders, however, all make an appearance.
One more thing: The show’s logo is a pair of eyes with gold eye shadow and black mascara, with the makeup dripping down with microphones and dollars. (In 2005, Tammy Faye told the Today show that losing her trademark eyelashes during her struggle with cancer was liberating. “I realized I wasn’t just eyelashes,” she said, adding that she glued on false ones. “A person is more than just what you look like on the outside.” She died of cancer two years later.)
Reviews, and What’s Next for ‘Tammy Faye’
As in life, “Tammy Faye” the musical received mixed reviews.
A couple of British critics gave it four stars out of five, with The Guardian praising “Elton John’s hymn to biblical kitsch” while the Independent extolled it as “camp, cutesy and hard to resist.”
And theatermania.com called it “a holy hoot.” The New York Post, however, felt the show was in need of some prayers to help it.
Still, tickets sold well, Milward said.
When asked if “Tammy Faye” eventually could transfer to Broadway, Milward said, “At this stage, the focus is on the run at the Almeida but of course it would be fantastic for the show to have a future life.”
Meanwhile, there’s one review that held particular resonance.
One of the Bakkers’ kids, Jay Bakker, recently flew to London to see the show.
On Instagam, he provided his take on the musical, praising Brayben’s moving portrayal, and noting, “At times I was tempted to get out of my seat and run on stage just to hug my mom one last time.”
This article was written by Adam Bell from The Charlotte Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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