‘Tammy Faye,’ Elton John’s musical, takes center stage to sold-out shows in London
“Tammy Faye’s story needs to be told in a way that shows her loving kindness."
LONDON -- The first time a televangelist conversed with someone living with AIDS or HIV on television was exactly 37 years ago, when unlikely gay ally Tammy Faye Bakker welcomed Rev. Steve Pieters on her show via satellite, signaling that "Tammy’s House Party" had an open invitation.
Though the live conversation contained questions that may sound insensitive to modern audiences, such as sex-related inquiries on how Pieters knew he was gay, the 24-minute exchange was a watershed interview, complete with waterworks from its host.
“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,” Faye beseeched to her 20 million viewers.
Seminal moments like this interview inspired writer James Graham and singer Elton John to adapt Faye’s tale of biblical proportions for the stage. The show’s creators maintain they have listened to Faye’s interview over 1,000 times in the past five years, calling the interaction “a defining moment in Tammy’s life,” Pieters told ABC News.
Tammy Faye is the newest musical from songwriter Elton John and Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears about the rise and meteoric plummet of Christian televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, with shows from Oct. 14 to Dec. 3 at north London’s Almeida Theatre.
Audiences will likely recognize names among the show’s cast, with Olivier Award-winner Katie Brayben as Tammy Faye and Tony Award-nominee Andrew Rannells as Jim Bakker.
Faye, originally a gospel singer, began her television career alongside her first husband, Jim Bakker, as the first host of “The 700 Club,” on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in 1965. From that point, the couple built a moneymaking empire over two decades only to witness the business’s bankruptcy -- in part due to Jim Bakker’s sexual harassment scandals -- by the end of the 1980s.
Faye, whose public image took a beating for many years in the aftermath, has become somewhat of a cult hero following the 2021 film about her life starring Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” based on the 2000 documentary of the same name.
“Preaching to millions 24 hours a day, Tammy just wants to put the fun back into faith,” the Almeida Theatre’s program reads. “But a new wave of ministers wants you not to just feel God in your heart, but in your homes, in your schools and in the law too.”
Faye’s radical embrace of LGBTQIA supporters -- combined with her campy makeup -- merited her the coveted title of a gay icon, as articulated by her documentary’s narrator and drag queen RuPaul. It only seems fitting the show’s music was created by another gay icon, Elton John. In her final interview with Larry King, Faye, 65 at the time, said, “When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, I will always love them for that.”
The new musical memorializes the revolutionary 1985 interview Faye conducted with Pieters, an openly gay pastor who was undergoing treatment for AIDS via the experimental drug suramin, on her PTL (Praise the Lord) network. Faye displays compassion towards Pieters in the real interview and its musical dramatization, tearing up and saying she wishes that she could wrap her arms around him in a hug.
Pieters said he is thrilled about the upcoming musical. Every performance is sold out at this time, according to the theatre’s website.
At a time when alarmist misinformation about HIV/AIDS abounded in Christian communities, Faye’s interview with Pieters broke boundaries.
“Jesus loves me just the way I am, Jesus loves the way I love,” Pieters echoed, quoting his televised interview with Faye.
The interview aired live in November 1985, just two months after President Ronald Reagan finally used the word “AIDS” for the first time in response to a reporter’s question on Sept. 17, four years after the crisis began. ABC camera crews refused to film indoors with the pastor around that same time, Pieters added.
“Tammy Faye’s story needs to be told in a way that shows her loving kindness, particularly towards people who aren't normally welcomed in faith communities,” Pieters said in a recent interview with ABC.
Pieters, one of the longest-term survivors of HIV in the United States, has been working for decades to show the same compassion of that interview, carrying on Faye’s legacy. Now 70, well past the multiple times he returned from death’s door, Pieters is retired and lives in Los Angeles where he takes great delight in singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
“I choose to feel joy, gratitude and peace for all the ways God has used me in this life: to spread the Word of God's healing love for all people,” Pieters said. “All people.”