Pass the lot

Out on Almeida Street during the interval of Tammy Faye, the world premiere of a musical about two of the most famous (at times notorious) televangelists of twentieth-century America, gangs of smokers were enthusiastically discussing how many celebrities were in the audience. In this adaptation of the lives of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, written by the prolific TV and theater adapter James Graham, the Church has become a television set, heaven a non-terrestrial network and God the “sweet satellite” beaming between them as the ensemble sing. “If Jesus were alive today”, Jim Bakker once said, “he would be on TV.” The most sacred sightings this night were Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott, stars of the wildly popular and successful TV show Fleabag (written and created by Waller-Bridge). Scott’s character in Fleabag is a Catholic priest who commands Waller-Bridge’s character to kneel, leaves his compartment of the confessional, kneels before her and kisses her, there in God’s house.

“Kneel” is one of the first words spoken in this version of The Eyes of Tammy Faye (a film directed by Michael Showalter and starring Jessica Chastain, which came out in 2021; the documentary on which it is based appeared in 2000). This time the demand comes not from a priest but from a doctor, asking Tammy Faye (played with great empathy and energy by Katie Brayben) to kneel so that he might search her body for the cancer that will eventually kill her. The play starts and ends here: in the twenty-first century, long after the thunderous rise and fall that marked the Bakkers’ time as co-hosts of the Christian TV network PTL (officially Praise the Lord, but rechristened Pass the Loot by their critics), which they launched in 1974 in Charlotte, North Carolina. While on her hands and knees in an operating gown, Tammy Faye jokes that she wouldn’t even let her ex-husband see her in this position – she filed for divorce in 1992, while Jim was serving a prison sentence for twenty-four counts of fraud and conspiracy, having bilked $158 million from his faithful PTL audience.

Kneeling is also in the programme; Considering the contentious relationship between Christianity and pop music in twentieth-century American culture, Laura Barton, a music writer, turns her attention to the sexual and religious connotations of kneeling in Madonna’s anthem “Like A Prayer”; the song so incensed Pope John Paul II (who has a cameo in this production) that he recommended all Italians boycott her music. Kneel, it turns out, is a valuably tricksy term, drawing attention to the blurred region between the sacred and the profane – in the case of the Bakkers, how you might start off in one and end up knee-deep in the other.

Tammy Faye (née LaValley) and Jim Bakker were born in Upper Midwestern states and brought up in strict Pentecostal Christian households. As children, both experienced or were spectators to significant trauma. After Tammy Faye’s parents divorced, her mother was branded the sinner in their rural Minnesotan community – prevented, even, from playing the piano in church. In his memory I Was Wrong (1996), Jim Bakker admitted that he was sexually abused as a child. These instances of abuse and sexism, later discovered as being chronic and endemic within the American evangelical community, are given only fleeting reference in this production by the artistic director of the Almeida, Rupert Gould – an early indicator of the way he and Graham have sanitized and simplified this fascinating and morally ambiguous story.

After the opening scene, the display across the wall of television screens that function as a movable backdrop to the set (designed by Bunny Christie) shows the years rewinding. Now it’s the early 1970s and Billy Graham, another famous televangelist, is ordering the biggest names in evangelical ministry to go forth and spread the good news live on television. In attendance are Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts (a founding father of prosperity theology). This is the “TV age”, Graham sings, “the light of the world is electric” – the sprightly, gospel-infused pop numbers (pumped out through speakers rather than performed live, though the singing certainly is) are written by Elton John , with lyrics by Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears. The most successful are the solo numbers performed by Brayben, almost always positioned center stage before her imagined camera, meeting and holding the gaze of audience members as she sings in the first act of her wish for us to reach out through the screen and take her hand, in the second of realizing that Jim betrayed her in “He Promised Me”, and, near the show’s end, in the most compelling, heart-rending smoke song, belted wondered out through and bright lights, “Maybe you should why / You came to watch me cry.” In contrast, the ensemble numbers feel lacklustre, perhaps because they are missing what makes Brayben’s performance so brilliant – a sense of urgency, the understanding that her time in the spotlight is hard-won and could, as was the case for her mother, be taken from her at any moment.

It was with the help of Billy Graham and Pat Robertson that the Bakkers found themselves hosting PTL, “broadcasting twenty-four hours a day until the Second Coming”, Jim (Andrew Rannells) half jokes. Their exuberant devotion to the network meant that, by its peak in 1986, they were reaching more than twelve million households via satellite link. They found ways to Christianize popular show formats – The PTL Club was a talk show on which they interviewed pretty much anyone who would attract viewers, from KFC’s Colonel Sanders to the editor of the pornographic magazine Hustler to Ronald Reagan on his election campaign. In this staging Reagan and Jim Bakker mix the ingredients for a cake live on air while Reagan espouses the virtues of lower taxes and free markets, with Bakker chiming in to suggest that communism might be anti-Christian and that Jesus was an individualist.

Near the end of the first act, fractures appear. The Bakkers are becoming accquisitive, followers now of Mammon, not God. They want to expand beyond the television set. Jim starts fundraising for his dream venture, Heritage USA, the first Christian theme park, selling viewers “lifetime memberships” for $1,000 a pop, the benefits of which they will never receive. The pressures of the camera are so great that he suffers panic attacks between segments. Tammy Faye, plastering her face with ever-thicker layers of make-up, as if to shield herself from the constant exposure, has developed an addiction to an over-the-counter benzodiazepine. (There is an extraordinary moment in the Showalter film, based on real PTL footage, when Chastain, clearly high, drifts off to examine the backdrop of the tropical-beach set they are performing against. As she runs her hand along the bright block of sky she says to herself, “Oh, it’s fake. That’s why.”)

The events that led to what the press termed the Pearlygate scandal are offered in rushed, dreamlike sequence here, as if Goold perhaps felt the musical might buckle under the weight of its serious content. In 1987 John Wesley Fletcher, a televangelist who made regular appearances on The PTL Club, accused Bakker of drugging and raping a young PTL church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and confessed that he had slept with Bakker multiple times. Bakker admitted to having an affair with Hahn, and to using $250,000 of PTL funds to keep her quiet, but declared under oath that the other allegations were false, after which Fletcher was convicted for perjury. Hahn continues to call this a lie: she says she was raped by Jim Bakker and that it was facilitated by Fletcher. None of this is included in the musical. In fact, when Hahn enters the story, she is the one who seduces Bakker, captivated by his fame. Andrew Garfield’s Bakker in the biopic is weak-minded and cruel; Rannells’s Bakker is sweet and maladoit, an object of pity, not disdain. This feels like an error in characterization and direction, downplaying the significant harm caused by Bakker.

Tammy Faye is the star of all three versions of the Bakker story (each written and directed by), not because she was never men convicted of any wrongdoing in the PTL scandal, but because of her afterlife as a queer icon. In 1985, live on PTL, she interviewed Steven Pieters, a gay pastor with Aids. This was a brave act by both Pieters and Tammy Faye – the televangelists, by and large, were homophobic and bigoted. Responding to concerns that PTL’s crew would walk off the set when Pieters arrived, it was agreed at the last minute that he would be interviewed via satellite, appearing on a bulky television screen beside Tammy Faye. Though some of her questions are naive, the message is powerful. “How sad”, she said, turning to her audience, “that we, as Christians, 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 .” In 2021 Pieters, who has outlived Tammy Faye, described how that interview continues to “reverberate through my life”.

As she dies, Tammy Faye cries out: “I could never have done it without the gays!”. Then she’s in heaven, and Billy Graham is producing the show, the television screens displaying an LED-rainbow flag for the final number, “See You in Heaven”, the whole cast dancing euphorically in sequence beneath the colored lights. In 1993 Graham suggested that Aids might be “judgement” from God, though he did retract his statement a few weeks later – perhaps to preserve his good name. Yet here he is, in queer heaven. Jim Bakker is convicted of rooking millions of people out of their savings and accused of worse, but here he is in queer heaven too, despite not being dead.

I wondered if Tammy Faye‘s mixed success was a function of the form – if it is unfair to ask that a musical end with ambiguity, rather than a sweet, celebratory song and dance about heaven. Then again, why shouldn’t we demand that all forms of art show the shades and colors of experience, not just by way of a flag at the back of the set, but within the story itself? More than that, this production fails its central character by underplaying the homophobic, sexist and abusive arena in which she was operating. It does not do justice to the remarkable tenacity and fearlessness of Tammy Faye.

Lamorna Ash is the author of Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish fishing town2020

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