The night before my interview with Jake Shears to talk about his new musical, Tammy Faye, I attend a screening of the film Bent put on by the British Film Institute to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary.
It becomes something of a thread over the next 24 hours as the Scissor Sisters frontman has also starred in a production of the play version in 2015.
“That was the first play I’d been in since high school. It really changed my life,” remarks Shears as we chat over brunch at Ottolenghi Islington. “It was a really special time getting to do that. It was just biting off enough that I can chew. I am now but I wasn’t an actor. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I worked super hard at it. I spent my whole summer on it but it was fantastic.”
Jake’s first proper foray into theatre post-school had actually come years earlier in the Tales of the City musical he worked on in 2011 in Los Angeles. Sadly, it didn’t make it far into the world from there, which later in the interview Jake puts down to him and the creative team having a lot on their respective plates. “I feel like someday, that show is gonna rear its head again, but I’m really proud of it. I think I’ve become a better lyricist since then.”
This brings us nicely to the reason why I’m sitting opposite Jake, to discuss his latest theatrical venture – a new musical on the life and story of the American televangelist, Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker). It’s been a labor of love for Jake and his musical partner, Sir Elton John, for the last 10 years.
Tammy may not be the most familiar reference for people in the UK, but in the 1970s and 1980s she, and her husband Jim Bakker, fronted one of America’s most popular shows, and eventually its own network, Praise The Lord. During that time they accrued massive influence by preaching to millions every day. However, everything came to a dramatic end upon the revelation that Bakker had embezzled and defrauded money from people and had also used some of the funds to silence allegations of rape against him by Jessica Hahn.
“I think she was in over her head,” Jake thinks of what Tammy Faye knew of all this. “I personally don’t think she was asking enough questions and thinking that everybody had it under control. I think she was just trying to like stay upright.”
Jake can relate somewhat to this, as the frontman of the Scissor Sisters. “You can be working so hard and you just end up leaving like a lot of stuff to like to managers to whatever and can work your ass off and suddenly wake up one morning and realise that no one is steering the ship.”
Tammy’s story was recently told in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain (who won an Oscar for the role) and Andrew Garfield as Bakker. That in turn was based on a documentary of the same name. The film presents Messner as a sympathetic figure. Unwaveringly kind, optimistic, and compassionate. Even towards the LGBTQ community; Tammy has won praise and many LGBTQ fans for her compassion towards the community at a time when they had few friends on her level and certainly within the Church. Famously, and quite remarkably at the time, Messner interviewed a man living with AIDs on live TV and expressed love and compassion for him too.
But why premiere a musical about an American televangelist, who was surely known in the UK at the time, but is undoubtedly a greater reference point in the United States? Jake recognises it’s a different audience who may not know who Tammy Faye was.
“It’s exciting for me to think that now they might. And also, it takes away people’s preconceived notions a little bit more. I’m not concerned about people not knowing who she is. It’s our job to tell this story and to tell it in a clear and concise way. That’s the main thing. I think you make a good show. It doesn’t really matter that people might not necessarily know exactly who she is.”
After a decade of work, the musical is about to make its debut at London’s The Almeida Theatre. Going back to 2006, the idea first came to Jake and Sir Elton while they were on a safari of all things.
Jake explains. “We watched the Tammy Faye documentary together and there’d been [a] conversation around the dinner table about how fun it would be to make a Christian Broadcasting Network musical that was based on these characters somewhat. In my head, I was thinking something like [the musical] Soap Dish, a little bit of a farce in real-time.”
Plans were set aside, however, after the pair found that another musical based on Faye was in the works. If records are correct, to date there have already been at least two different musicals (and one play) on the televangelist with reports from 2019 indicating that Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth is working on another musical.
But Jake and Elton were in luck. “It was Elton’s birthday about 10 years ago and he pulled me aside and said that they got the life rights for Tammy Faye Messner. And he asked me if I wanted to do it with him, which was really exciting of course,” continues Jake.
The show will provide a broad overview of Tammy Faye’s life, Jake tells Attitude between mouthfuls of scrambled eggs and salmon on toast. The team has chosen a subject that is by no means lacking in story or substance. If the show is anything like the Chastain-led film in terms of what it covers there’s more than enough for a Netflix series. There’s Tammy Faye’s childhood, her meeting marriage to Jim Bakker, the origins of their TV programme (with puppets), and the evolution of that into Praise The Lord, the children, the misogyny, and of course the building scandal and the freefall that follows.
Jake says the show is very different from what he imagined at the outset. Each of the creatives, including himself, John, book writer James Graham and director, Rupert Goold, has brought something to the project. As well as the events that take place in Tammy Faye’s life, the musical also looks at the context in which those events take place, particularly the rise of the religious right.
This connects the 1970s and 80s-set story to 2022. “You can see what’s happening in America right now in a lot of ways and how it’s linked to this moment,” says Jake. “And I think the story itself is almost Shakespearean. It’s a tragic story yet she touched a lot of lives. She had a great message. I think that’s a good feeling to walk away from this show with. The woman went through a lot and to come out the other side of that the way that she did without bitterness, and still being a loving person is pretty amazing.”
Discussing what makes Tammy Faye such a good subject for a musical, given this is now the fourth, Jake starts going into the pageantry of Christian TV, “There’s a lot of camp. It’s really gay.” It was something he watched a lot growing up in a Christian household in Arizona.
“At the centre of it all, you’ve got this woman who was ridiculously charming and very sweet and really easy to connect to. She practiced radical love. And she reminded me of my mother and still does. That’s one of the things that I love about her. My mom’s a Christian woman and I’m really close with my mom.”
Jake describes the presence of religion during his childhood as never being “oppressive”. He went to church and he speaks fondly of his Christian high school, which he thinks saved him from bullying he probably would have got had he gone to a regular high school.
“I think Tammy Faye has a lot in common with someone like Dolly Parton who is a Christian and I think a true Christian. I love true Christianity, I think it’s a beautiful thing. And I think it can easily go really wrong,” Jake opines.
We reflect on why the kind of love and compassion demonstrated by Tammy, a woman undoubtedly devoted to her faith, is seemingly not as common as the other kinds of evangelicalism that often preaches anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
“The good stuff doesn’t always rise to the top. I think it’s a lot easier for self-righteousness and hatred to rise to the surface. Look what’s happening now with Christian nationalism in America, it’s truly terrifying. I’m really happy to be over here at the moment for that reason. I’m very uncomfortable with what’s going on in the United States. And that has a lot to do with it,” offers Jake.
“Another thing to realise is that Jim and Tammy were coming out of the 60s. And there was this kind of like hippie Jesus wave. Jim’s phrase was, ‘God loves you. He really does.’ They weren’t hippies by any means. I think there was something in the zeitgeist about ‘Jesus as love’ at the time that I think sort of bled into their approach and it worked for them until it didn’t.”
As for Tammy’s connections with the LGBTQ community, the show won’t explore them in depth. The late televangelist achieved gay icon status for her love towards the community, which Jake can understand. She was a woman, who was warm and expressed love for many who lived in communities that may have been rejecting them.
“There was just a vibe from her that felt like you wanted to hang out with her, you felt like she loved you. There was something that did, I think, drew gay men to her especially those growing up in the church, especially those with Christian television on in homes. I think there’s something very specific about her that made gay men feel comfortable.”
With just weeks to go until the show opens (at the time of the interview) things are in full swing and we’re assured are looking good. Jake marvels at seeing his work brought to life by a talented cast including Katie Brayben, who won an Olivier Award for her role as legendary songstress Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
“She’s amazing, and a real pleasure to watch. I’m constantly getting goosebumps from her. And she makes me really teary-eyed sometimes. There’s nothing more emotionally satisfying than seeing a show start to come together. It’s really emotional and she really brings something very real and emotional and relatable to the table.”
Tony Award-nominee and all-around talent, Andrew Rannells, known for originating the role of Elder Price in The Book of Mormon and for his roles in Girls and The Prom, will star as Faye’s former husband, Jim Bakker.
On creating the music and lyrics for the show with longtime friend and collaborator, Sir Elton John, Jake is clear that he wanted the music in the show to “unmistakably” sound like Elton.
“Elton is one of my all-time favourites and I feel like we’ve really just done some magical things. I think with the orchestration, how you orchestrate you can make something sound completely different. I’ve been very much a stickler for making everything sound like him. And I think that’s a fun thing. I think that’ll be exciting for people to really hear him in the music.”
Letting us in on the music writing process Jake, who waxes lyrical of one of his best friends (jealous!), explains that, “I had an initial set of stacks of lyrics, he’d shuffle through and pick one. We’d talk about where it is, what it is, and possible sounds for it. He’d make me go around a corner, I have to be out of his eyesight for about three to five minutes while he starts playing with it. And then he calls me in and then I just watched him play with it and see where it’s going and just sort of fumble our way through it, get a structure for it. I’d take those lyrics with the cadences that he’s doing and I step away for 30 minutes and recalibrate it, bring it back, do another pass on it with him and then have the full band there and we’d record it like you would an album.”
Following Tales of the City Jake has been hard on himself when it comes to Tammy Faye. He’s tweaked and tweaked things until he’s happy with them. Although he also admits, “sometimes you think you’ve written something really clever and then you hear them sing and you’re like, that’s actually really shit. I’ve got to go fix that. And all those tweaks add up to something that I feel is really solid.”
Jake promises audiences will be entertained and hopefully educated about a figure he finds fascinating. Tammy Faye is definitely a charismatic figure worthy of a musical who found herself at the centre of events that represented a new age of TV. In our conversation, Jake draws a direct line from the “first giant media circus” surrounding Tammy and Jim to the trial of OJ Simpson. “I don’t think people had seen the likes of anything that big of a news story. So, on that level, I find it super fascinating.”
As things draw to a close we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask at least one question about the Scissor Sisters. After all, it’s 10 years since the band’s last album, Magic Hour, so could a reunion be around the corner?
Jake laughs it off and says he’s been told he can’t answer that type of question. But he does tease, “I have a lot in the pipeline right now. It’s gonna be a good couple of years for me.”
Tammy Faye is playing at the Almeida Theatre from 14 October to 3 December 2022. Get tickets here.