With music and lyrics by Elton John and Jake Shears, Tammy Faye is as iconic as the woman it is about. Putting the Faye in faith, this musical is incredibly fun to watch; it’s bright, an emotional rollercoaster and somewhat educational beyond the biography it sets itself up to.
Sell your soul to buy a ticket so that Tammy Faye can save it
Directed by Rupert Goold, Tammy Faye explores the rise and fall of the PTL and the tele-evangelists Tammy Faye (Katie Brayben) and Jim Bakker (Andrew Rannells), from their humble beginnings of teaching Christianity through puppetry to children to the height of their TV days and the subsequent sex and fraud scandals that engulfed the pair. On a larger scale, this musical shows the development of the Christian right and the predatory tactics used by tele-evangelists on vulnerable populations in American society.
In a twisted sort of way, it’s incredibly clever how James Graham has set us up to root for Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye despite all the harm they caused. Maybe it’s because we are encouraged to see Jerry Falwell (Zubin Varla) as the antagonist he is, so in comparison the Bakker’s appear rather harmless. As the main characters, and even heroes of the musical who from the start have been tagged as outsiders or at least different from other evangelists, we don’t want to believe the worst of them, which makes for a rude awakening when we are brought back into the reality of the situation outisde of the realtive safety of PTL. After this point in Act 2 the rest is distinctly much weaker than the first, just because it appears that the creative team had trouble figuring out how to end the musical. The problems boils down to James Graham’s book; whilst the overall musical is seamless and shows the progression of events and time well, the happy ending itself comes out of nowhere. After all, are we really expected to believe that Tammy Faye was rewarded in the end? Tammy Faye did benefit from Jim Bakker’s fraud, and it’s hard to believe that she was a completely innocent bystander. It’s a rather apologist musical in that it smoothes over the more problematic aspects of the pair’s characters and illegal activities, as if the creative team wants us to excuse their crimes. Whilst we recognise that Tammy Faye helped shape conversations around taboo subjects and stood agains the common grain of thought in Christianity in regards to homosexuality, what PTL did was still illegal. There are parallalels in the manipulative language that the Bakkers use in this musical to squeeze donations from their viewers to the predatory practices of modern day tele-evangelists. There is a direct link, meaning that the Bakkers and PTL are partly responsible for what we see today, and this in itself outweighs any good they may have done.
John has already solidified his place in musical history, and Tammy Faye is just further proof of why. From gospel numbers to extremely gut-wrenching pop ballads like Empty Hands to high-spirited and acoustically dark country numbers like He Promised Me, John brings his signature flair to every song that we cannot help but wish that we could listen to them on repeat. It’s hard to pick a favourite, because each song is such a perfect snapshot of each moment or character, oscillating between a jauntiness that brings a certain pep to the action or brings the entire atmosphere down. John has the Midas touch, and it certainly shows in Tammy Faye. Bunny Christie’s set design recreates the tv studio before our eyes, almost emphasising the performative aspects of some of the show and blurring the lines between private and public moments. By being able to see through the 4th wall into the wings where props and set used in parts of the PTL broadcast are kept, we take on a dual role as the TV studio audience but also more of an omnipotent presence than in any other musical. All of the moving parts coupled with Goold’s direction allow for humorous moments that contextualise the musical and fill the spaces between important moments.
Brayben’s Tammy is sweet as pie, clever and compassionate. There is an innocence and naivety in her character at the start that we cannot help but want to protect, the personification of sunshine on Brayben's part. Brayben shows us how Tammy grows up throughout the course of the show, by the end we see that she is physically tougher, something that is mimicked in her songs. Empty Hands and If You Came To See Me Cry are breath-taking. She pours so much pain and defiance into each note to the point where any pity that we may feel just turns into awe at her performance. As Jim Bakker, Rannells comes off as charming but in an ‘aw shucks’ kind of way. We root for him because he doesn’t come across as a threat or a villain, but just as a regular guy doing his best.While Rannells’ ringmaster performance God’s House/ Heritage USA lulls us into a false sense of security, with the energetic circus of his performance hiding the more problematic aspects of the plan. Rannells gives Bakker a humanity that we don’t expect, and his is a much softer and endearing interpretation of the figure, which makes Bakker’s criminal acts all the more surprising. Like the historical figures that they play, the show rests on the strength of the Brayben and Rannell’s partnership and its evolution over the course of the show. Both talented performers in their own right, the pair possess a rare chemistry that is present even in the deepest lows of the relationship.
Varla's performance as Jerry Falwell is something else entirely. As a representative of the Christian right, he’s everything you’d expect. Varla makes Falwell a villain with absolutely no redeemable qualities, and he uses such precision that we cannot help but learn through the character as well. We can see his trickery coming (mostly because his manipulations play out in real time onstage so in a panto-esque fashion we always know more than the characters) but that makes them more despicable as he seemingly takes advantage of Tammy and Jim’s naivety and faith. Satellite of God is practically a cross between eurovision and musical theatre, and it’s probably the first song that uses the ‘I want’ trope where we don’t actively root for the character singing it by the end. Because of Varla, Jerry Falwell is the most realistic portrayal in this musical.
Through the use of brightly-coloured and upbeat pop music reminiscent of the 70s and 80s, Tammy Faye is a great case study for the development of the current political and religious social context in America whilst also providing a warning about technology and how it can be used for both great and terrible things, a lesson that we are all too familiar with. This musical is completely unmissable, so sell your soul to buy a ticket so that Tammy Faye can save it.