IGB member Ben Whitehouse reflects on seeing the musical based on the life of Tammy Faye Messner

Tammy Faye: The Musical, Almeida Theatre, London. 02/11/2022

Music: Elton John. Lyrics: Jake Shears. Book: James Graham.

The life and legacy of televangelist Tammy Faye Messner (nee Bakker) is undergoing something of a reappraisal. In 2000 Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (the co-founders of World of Wonder the company behind the RuPaul’s Drag Race) released a fly on the wall documentary titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The success of TEOTF led to them making Tammy Faye: Death Defying in 2005 and followed Tammy Faye through treatment for inoperable stage 4 colon cancer. In 2021 Jessica Chastain starred in a film based on the documentary with Andrew Garfield starring as Tammy Faye’s husband Jim Bakker. Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker established much of the “electric church” channels that exists now: TBN, PTL, the 700 Club. Jim Bakker was convicted for financial mismanagement and alleged sexual misconduct.

The story of the musical is as much about Jim Bakker as it is Tammy Faye. Tammy Faye is shown being criticised by fellow televangelists for hosting a person with AIDS on her show and expressing God’s love for them at a time when President Regan wouldn’t even say AIDS. The musical shows Tammy Faye always seeking to share God’s love with people who are often left outside traditional organised churches. Despite her background in Christian fundamentalism Tammy Faye refused to denounce the LGBTQ+ community. During her final interview with Larry King, she said “when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.” Tammy Faye appeared to love silliness, camp and wanted to communicate the love of God to people regardless of where they come from.

The music by Elton John moves the action along in the musical and the songs showcase the talent of Katie Brayben as Tammy Faye and Andrew Rannells as Jim Bakker. Tammy Faye gets the best songs and Brayben carries the whole musical. The script by James Graham places Tammy Faye and Jim into a wider context of place and politics and the advent of the “electric church” and the blurring of entertainment, worship, and congregation. What ultimately destroys Tammy Faye’s ministry is a clamping down on liberal values, a return to “family values”, rejecting a woman’s right to choose, biblical fundamentalism- ideas that are eerily on the rise now.

Graham allows the audience to see Tammy Faye in the afterlife when she first meets God in heaven, Tammy Faye says to God “Hold on, just one more song…” which God grants her. As she sings, she meets with various figures from her life and has a chance to ask for forgiveness and dishes out radical and generous forgiveness too. The story of Tammy Faye is a story of love, forgiveness, and redemption which reminds me of the life of Jesus.

Photos by Marc Brenner.