Kathie Lee bounces back with family-friendly musical


ARLINGTON, Va. -- In our tabloid-obsessed nation, perhaps a few people wonder what happened to Kathie Lee Gifford, the highly successful co-host with Regis Philbin of the TV program Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, which morphed into Live With Regis and Kelly.

She didn't turn to drugs or alcohol. She didn't retreat to a convent. She didn't divorce her husband. She is drawing on what once were called "traditional values" before such things became open to negotiation and personal interpretation. She is writing musicals.

This girl is plucky. She leaves one high-risk position and embraces another.

She has reinvented herself. I like that. It beats becoming a victim. This is what the old song, "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again," is about. Nothing is impossible, she has found.

Mrs. Gifford has penned the book and lyrics for a lovely little off-Broadway musical called Under the Bridge, opening tomorrow at the Zipper Theatre on West 37th Street in New York City. The musical is based on the book, The Family Under the Bridge, by Natalie Savage Carlson.

The story line is simple enough. An old hobo (played wonderfully in the preview I saw by the veteran actor Ed Dixon) lives under a Paris bridge in 1953. He seems happy with his life until his space is invaded by a homeless woman (Jacquelyn Piro) and her three children.

The show has elements of Irma la Douce, Oliver!, Les Miserables and even An American in Paris. The musical is what we once called a decent show -- before sleaze, bad language and coarseness took hold. This is a family-friendly production, which was reflected by the many children in the audience.

Not only did I cheer the show for its numerous virtues (the hobo and the homeless family redeem each other), I was also quietly cheering Mrs. Gifford for hers. This is a woman who has felt the searing heat of critics, especially Tom Shales of The Washington Post, who trashed every one of her Christmas TV specials with invective usually reserved for child molesters and mass murderers.

Still, she kept coming back with more decency and traditional fare at a time when many entertainment moguls were seeing how low they could go. That good shows such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Wicked continue to pack them in and make their backers millions, long after lower-quality shows have closed and incurred steep losses, does not seem to get through to the R-rated crowd.

Mrs. Gifford was also trashed for publicly speaking about her children (some critics said she did it too much). If she had not talked about them, those same critics would have called her a lousy mother. She could not win with some critics, but with audiences she could.

Here is someone who is trying to sow good seed among weeds. She has created something charming with this musical. Audiences who care about the general moral and cultural decline cannot complain about the bad if they won't support and patronize the good.

Mrs. Gifford, whose next project is a musical based on the life of 20th-century radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, has found a new career. She ought to be an example to many, not only in her professional life but in the character she has displayed by refusing to lie down and professionally die after ending her successful career in television.

You go, Kathie Lee Gifford!

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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