The colourful life story of an American Christian superstar who became a gay icon because of her empathy for people with Aids/HIV is the subject of a new stage musical with a score by Elton John.
Rehearsals began this week for the world premiere of Tammy Faye at the Almeida theatre in north London in October. As well as Elton John’s music, the show’s script was written by James Graham, the author of the television dramas Sherwood and Brexit: The Uncivil War, and the play Ink.
The show is, said the Almeida, a “testament of faith, resilience and the temptations of success”.
Tammy Faye Messner, who died in 2007, built a Christian television empire with her first husband, Jim Bakker. With her elaborate hairstyles, heavy makeup and warm personality, Tammy Faye was a hit. At its height, the couple’s flagship programme, The PTL Club (short for praise the lord), was seen in more than 13m households across the US.
The couple, who met at bible college, also created a hugely successful Christian theme park, Heritage USA, in South Carolina. In its peak years in the 1980s, it was the third most popular theme park in the world behind Disneyland and Disney World.
Tammy Faye’s guileless persona and willingness to discuss subjects considered out of bounds by other Christian broadcasters won her a huge following. But it was acceptance of LGBT+ people, and her empathy for those facing illness and death as a result of the Aids epidemic, that marked her out within a religious movement characterised by homophobia.
In particular, her emotional 1985 television interview with Steve Pieters, an openly gay church pastor living with HIV, was a break with religious and political orthodoxy. At the time, some public figures were suggesting that Aids was a divine punishment for homosexuality.
A few years later, Jim Bakker was jailed for fraud and conspiracy; he had also been accused of raping and paying off a church secretary, which he denied. Tammy Faye, who divorced Bakker while he was in prison, wrote three memoirs and continued to appear on television. Her last appearance, on the Larry King Show, was two days before she died of cancer at the age of 65.
“It was a bizarre, baroque, almost operatic life story,” said Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director who is directing the musical. “She’s at times kitsch, at times sentimental, but basically a very empathic figure.”
The world of televangelism, in particular the Bakkers’ show, was “a theatrical world” which lent itself to a musical comedy, he added. But there was a serious side, too.
“We’re in a really interesting time regarding faith and belief, with the repealing of Roe v Wade in various [US] states and the return of the idea of faith-based morality or legislation. There is talk that that may move towards gay marriage and parenting, and there’ll be a policing of civil liberties and people’s bodies. And it’s not without resonances over here.
“So although Tammy Faye is a historic story, and looks really at the birth of the prosperity gospel, it has something politically to say now.”
Elton John has written the scores for several musicals, including The Lion King and Billy Elliott.
“I think there’s quite a lot of faith music and church music influences in classic Elton John,” said Goold. “Tammy came to early fame in the 70s, and then became a different kind of public figure in the 80s and 90s. And the score in some ways traces Elton’s own musicality through those periods as well.”
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a film starring Jessica Chastain, came out last autumn to mixed reviews and grossed just $2.7m at the box office.
Tammy Faye is at the Almeida theatre from 13 October until 3 December