Her new direction is musical theater

Published: Tuesday, January 11, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2005 at 10:10 p.m.
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Kathie Lee Gifford on the set of her play, "Under the Bridge," at The Zipper Theatre in New York.

The Associated Press
In the bowels of a small theater in a seedy section of town, Kathie Lee Gifford is being a little naughty. "So I'm having a little vino," she says sweetly. "So sue me."
OK, OK. Take it easy, Mrs. Gifford. The wine, it's soon clear, functions in a nerve-steadying role: Gifford is bracing for one of the final rehearsals of her first musical - the first step in a new career as, of all things, a playwright.
Four years after leaving her post as the burbling co-host of "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee," Gifford insists she's found joy in the world of theater and far away from the TV camera.
"You know, I turned 50 a year and a half ago and I'm like, 'Why am I so . . . happy about that?' I think it has to do with the fact that I could have the kind of life I wanted," she says. "It enabled me to take time - for the first time in life - to do something right."
Gifford's new "stage project" - for which she supplied the book, lyrics and some of the music - is "Under the Bridge," an adaptation of a children's book about a hobo who befriends a homeless family in Paris.
Though she doesn't perform, Gifford has shown up virtually every day at the tiny Zipper Theatre to fine-tune the show, the first of three musicals she has in the works. She's also 120 pages into her first novel.
"Menopause is helpful, actually," she says, with the deadpan humor TV viewers once lapped up. "Because I can't sleep anyway, I might as well be up doing something productive."
From the balcony seats in the theater far west of Broadway's bright lights, Gifford watches like a proud mommy as workmen hoist ladders and electricians fix lights for the evening's performance.
She is still goofy - she will shut one eye completely like a drunken sailor when she knows she's being corny - and still elegant, with perfectly applied makeup and hair the color of burnished gold, and as straight as a sheet of paper. But while she is the first to mock herself, Gifford is no pushover. Her steely gaze can emerge when things irk her, as when a sound technician makes the mistake of blasting Bob Marley through the speakers.
"That we could do without, sweetie!" she bellows with the same tone as a mother watching her child put a worm in his mouth. "It's not exactly French!"
Then she jokingly mimes taking a drag from a marijuana cigarette. The reaction seems classic Gifford - both the holier-than-thou matron on the one hand, and the down-to-Earth jokester who can undercut her own pretense on the other.
Director Eric Schaeffer says Gifford's skills as a lyricist and songwriter shouldn't be pooh-poohed simply because of her Martha Stewart-like image, one that you either love or loathe.
"My friends have said with some puzzlement, 'You're working with Kathie Lee?' I said, 'You're going to be surprised,' " he says. "It's a shame, really. I think of what she is portrayed as is not who she is."
Gifford is not wistful about the 15 years she spent opposite Regis Philbin, a spotlight made increasingly uncomfortable by the public humiliation of husband Frank Gifford's tabloid-fueled affair and allegations that her Wal-Mart clothing line was produced in sweatshops.
"It got very old, very fast," she says. "I could be in an insane asylum with everything that's gone on. I could have killed somebody or be in jail, or killed myself. You have to somehow find that place to put it that makes sense."
She didn't realize at the time the toll the show - with its endless recitation of mundane daily musings and constant ribbing that is now the current life of replacement Kelly Ripa - was taking on her creative psyche.
"Nobody ever got on television before and talked about their life for a living. That's what we did. It was OK when I was young, when I was single and childless. But once I started impacting the people I loved, then it became harmful," Gifford says.
It is in theater where Gifford has found a new outlet beyond the TV personality that cooed endlessly about her children or the syrupy sweet Christian singer that once pumped out CDs.
"The music, the writing, the spirituality and the life experience didn't all come together until I started writing for theater. I see that now," she says.
"All those years I was singing - trying to find the meaning in everybody else's lyrics - was so I would know how to write one now. All those years in the spotlight was so I'd know what my actors were going through, all those years trying to be understood, instead of being misunderstood."
Gifford's latest project was inspired when her daughter, Cassidy, then in second grade, suggested they tackle Natalie Savage Carlson's "The Family Under the Bridge" as part of nightly story time. The slim book didn't seem very promising: a hobo was its hero. The heroine was a penniless widow struggling with three children. Thieving gypsies were depicted as romantic figures.
Gifford was hesitant at first and tried to steer Cassidy elsewhere. ("So I'm not the perfect mother, all right?" she jokes.) But once they plowed through it, Gifford saw deeper themes, such as racism, materialism and classism.
"When I was reading the book, I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, there should be a song in this scene and I know exactly what it should say,' " she says. "It took far longer to get the rights for the piece than it took to write it."

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