There Are Two Musicals About Tammy Faye Bakker Currently in Development
Which one will make it to Broadway first?
We've been hearing rumblings of not one, but two musicals about American televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, currently being developed by A-list creative teams: The first, tentatively called Rise, features a writing team of recent Tony winners; the second, Tammy Faye—The Musical, is being composed by none other than Elton John. This Story of the Week will compile everything we know about the two Tammy Faye musicals, speculate about when we might actually see these shows, and explain exactly how Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth is involved. But first, for the unfamiliar:
Who is Tammy Faye Bakker?
From 1974 to 1987, Tammy Faye Bakker was the cohost (with her husband, Jim) of The PTL Club — the abbreviation stands for "Praise the Lord" (often derided by critics as "pass the loot"). The PTL Club was one of the most popular religious television programs in America, and Tammy Faye, with her over-the-top hair, makeup, and personality, was the main attraction. She combined humor, heart, and a musical sensibility to create a television program that was both uplifting and entertaining.
The format generated plenty of loot: At its height, PTL earned revenues of over $120 million annually, much of it donations from home viewers. Religious revivalism has been central to American life since Plymouth Colony, but the advent of mass media made it profitable on an unprecedented scale — affording Jim and Tammy Faye a lavish lifestyle and setting the stage for their eventual downfall.
In addition to her distinctive personal style, Tammy Faye also gained a reputation for her willingness to address taboo subjects that her colleagues would avoid, like when she interviewed an openly gay Christian pastor and AIDS patient in 1985. In that interview, she opined, "How sad that we as Christians, who are to be the salt of the earth, we who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care." In the ensuing years, Tammy Faye has become something of a gay icon, both for her LGBT-friendly attitudes and for her tragic personal story.
That tragedy was thrown into sharp relief in the late '80s, when a one-two punch of scandals forced the Bakkers off the air. First, Jim Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct with a church secretary. Then, he was indicted on 24 counts of federal fraud (he was eventually found guilty and served five years in prison). In 1992, the Bakkers divorced. Tammy Faye married contractor Roe Messner the following year (taking his last name). She continued to be a public figure until her death in 2007.
For a brief period, I attended services at a hipster church (based out of the back of a Williamsburg bar) ministered by Jim and Tammy Faye's son, Jay Bakker. Like his mother, he always struck me as a person who genuinely believed in the Gospels (especially Christ's regard for the least of these my brethren). Certainly, he was born into an extraordinary family with an only-in-America story made to be told in a distinctly American form. Tammy Faye, in particular, exists at the nexus of drama and song that is the sweet spot for the book musical: She's a sympathetic yet flawed figure with a heart of gold and a set of pipes to match. Just watch the below video and you'll understand why multiple teams of writers are scrambling to put her story onstage.
How is Kristin Chenoweth involved?
Chenoweth has long expressed her desire to play Tammy Faye on Broadway. In 2011, she participated in a reading of Rise, a musical that imagines Tammy Faye in the afterlife, with songs by Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls). The following year, Krieger revealed that he was collaborating with David Yazbek (The Band's Visit) on new lyrics. Striking the right tone between camp and sincerity has long been cited as a challenge with Rise (if it's still called that), and earlier this year, Chenoweth revealed to Andy Cohen that Robert Horn (Yazbek's collaborator on Tootsie) was now working on the book. Bio-musicals are hard, and a show about Tammy Faye Messner, a person who wore many wigs, could be taken in a lot of directions.
"The woman never stopped. She was an entrepreneur," Chenoweth said admiringly in a recent 20/20 interview, noting the discrepancy between Tammy Faye's high-pitched speaking voice and powerful singing voice (a quality Chenoweth shares). Is there any doubt that Chenoweth has been perfecting her Tammy Faye portrayal in front of her bathroom mirror for years? It's the perfect role for her and would almost certainly put her in Tony contention if the show were ever to make it to Broadway — a big if at this point.
What about Tammy Faye — The Musical?
Chenoweth may be plotting to play Tammy Faye on Broadway, but across the pond there's another Tammy Faye musical in the works. Tammy Faye — The Musical is a collaboration between Elton John (The Lion King) and Jake Shears (formerly of the Scissor Sisters and a recent star of Kinky Boots). John has spoken publicly about the project since at least 2013, and this year we learned that James Graham (Ink) is writing the book. A reading was held this past May, and The Daily Mail's Baz Bamigboye has revealed that the team is aiming for a 2020 London debut.
Just last week, however, Shears seemed to temper those expectations. "Musicals are nothing but heartbreak," he told The Times, elaborating, "They take forever, they're so stop-starty. It's the most archaic thing you could ever make, they're older than God. There's no shortcuts, nothing technological you can use. It's all elbow grease and there's so many things that can go wrong." Could this indicate that there's trouble in Tammyland? Considering the fits and starts encountered by their rival team stateside, I wouldn't be surprised.
Which one will we see first?
Honestly, who knows? The John-Shears collaboration is the show with a target date (sometime in 2020), but even that seems speculative in an age when musicals can take over a decade to develop. The Krieger-Chenoweth collaboration had its first reading in 2011, and we're still learning about new writers in 2019.
Then there is the very real possibility that Tammy Faye will first arrive on the Broadway stage as a supporting character in the BeBe Winans bio-musical Born for This. That show has been making the rounds for the last several years, and the Broadway-caliber design team behind last year's Boston run (Neil Patel, William Ivey Long) suggests that Born for This is ready for a Broadway berth.
It may be a while before there are public performances of either Tammy Faye musical (should they escape the development phase). But indulge this theater reporter for one minute in fantasizing about the longshot prospect of dueling Tammy Faye musicals playing simultaneously on Broadway. That would be a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical event worthy of an unforgettable subject.