TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker released a string of albums, featuring such songs as “Somebody Touched Me”, “Fill Me Up Lord” and “He’s Coming Soon”,* so it makes a lot of sense to tell her story with music. Throw in the large personality and charm that helped turn her into a cultural icon – and a queer icon too – and you have the perfect ingredients for a musical. With two other queer icons, Elton John and Jake Shears, writing the music and lyrics, new musical Tammy Faye captures the exuberance and appeal that made her such a star way beyond the world of Christian TV. Combine this with a book by James Graham, the astute political playwright behind Quiz, Ink and Brexit: The Uncivil War, and you have an often insightful piece exploring Christian fundamentalism and American politics in America in the 1970s and 1980s.
The show charts the rise and fall of Tammy Faye and her troubled TV evangelist husband, Jim Bakker, from their early days running a puppet-oriented ministry for children. Benefiting from the opening up of TV broadcasting, they co-founded Christian channel PTL (Praise the Lord) and went on to build an empire that included a theme park and hotel. But the show turns the focus back on Tammy Faye as her charisma and compassion lead her to a solo career with her own chat show where she interviewed people not traditionally featured in Christian shows, such as a gay pastor with HIV. Graham sets this within the wider context of the growth of TV evangelism and the internal politics of the so-called “Electric Church”, placing the Bakkers in opposition to the more old-school pastors such as Jerry Falwell. At the same time, the story highlights how this was a period where the US abandoned the principle of “separation of church and state” in such a visceral way that the links between the Republican Party and Christianity remain embedded in American politics today.
The success of the musical owes much to its phenomenal cast and, in particular, Katie Brayben who gives a powerhouse of a performance as Tammy Faye, both vocally and bringing the character to life with humour and depth. Andrew Rannells is excellent as husband Jim, whose early ineptitude and awkwardness lose their cuteness as he succumbs to doubt, temptation and sexual confusion. Zubin Varla relishes in the role of their arch nemesis Jerry Falwell, driven by political ambitions and near-demented hatred of the relatively more “liberal” Bakkers, gloriously expressed in his solo song “Satellite of God”.
Many of the songs recall Tammy Faye’s own gospel hits although, in the hands of Elton John and Jake Shears, they are inevitably much better and mostly serve to move the story along. With retro curves and squares, Bunny Christie’s versatile set takes inspiration from 1970s TV studios, amplified by Katrina Lindsey’s costume design and some stunning wigs that match the periods perfectly. It veers between camp and kitsch but, thanks to Rupert Goold’s direction and Graham’s writing, it manages to tell the story with wit and irony while maintaining a level of sensitivity and subtlety that stops the characters turning into caricatures. The musical format may take away opportunities for a more complex exploration of TV evangelism and politics but it makes this an entertaining and ultimately uplifting portrait of a woman who injected glamour, glitz and compassion into American Christianity.
Tammy Faye runs at the Almeida Theatre in London until 3 December 2022.
*Song titles courtesy of discogs.com