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Broadway flop 'Scandalous' a costly investment for Foursquare Church

Its Foursquare Foundation charitable arm takes a reported $2 million loss on the Kathie Lee Gifford musical about church founder Aimee Semple McPherson.

February 14, 2013|By David Ng and Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Carolee Carmello as Aimee Semple McPherson in "Scandalous."
Carolee Carmello as Aimee Semple McPherson in "Scandalous." (Michael Stewart / WireImage )

There was no divine intervention for the musical "Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson." The Broadway show about evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson — written by TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford — opened and closed within a month.

The Foursquare Church, a global Christian denomination based in Echo Park, watched the failure with more than a historical interest. The church, founded by McPherson 90 years ago, was a major investor in the show through its Foursquare Foundation charitable arm.

Foursquare representatives declined to say how much the church foundation lost when the show closed Dec. 9, but two Foursquare clergy members with knowledge of the situation placed it at $2 million. These people requested their names not be used because they were not authorized to publicly discuss foundation finances.

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The foundation's executive director, Greg Campbell, left the church within days of the show's closure, said the people. In addition, the church replaced all but one of the foundation board members in part because of dissatisfaction with the decision to invest in a Broadway musical.

The foundation board had 11 members listed in its most recent annual report.

"Many people took issue with the foundation's narrow scope regarding evangelism, the difficulty of the grant process, and, most recently, the decision to invest in 'Scandalous: The Life and Times of Aimee Semple McPherson,'" the church said in announcing the board shake-up Nov. 8.

That statement came a week before the show officially opened but after it had been in previews for a month. The show had trouble drawing audiences and opened to negative reviews.

Campbell did not respond to requests for comment. Glenn Burris Jr., the president of the Foursquare Church — and the only board member who was not replaced — also declined comment.

In a statement to The Times, the church said "the conclusion of Greg Campbell's employment with The Foursquare Church was completely unrelated to our investment in the musical 'Scandalous.'" The statement also said that the "changes made to the Foursquare Foundation board of directors were also unrelated to the investment in the musical 'Scandalous.'"

Church spokesman Brad Abare declined to address the apparent contradiction with the Nov. 8 statement in which the investment in "Scandalous" is cited. Abare also didn't respond to questions about how the Foursquare investment came about and how much the church lost.

Another Foursquare clergy member informed about the situation but lacking authority to speak publicly said Campbell pushed the investment, seeing the musical as a positive way to draw attention to the church. The clergy member said the problem wasn't so much that "Scandalous" had lost money but that in making the investment Campbell and the Foursquare Foundation board skirted the foundation's established grant-making procedures. As church officials looked further into "the absence of process" regarding the "Scandalous" grant, the clergy member said, other problems surfaced and prompted the leadership changes.

The Foursquare Foundation began awarding grants in 2005 using money that came from part of the church's $250-million sale of its radio station, KFSG-FM, five years earlier, according to the Foundation's website.

"Scandalous" was the brainchild of "Today" show co-host Gifford, who wrote the script, lyrics and some of the music — and wasn't shy about promoting it during airtime. She declined to comment.

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The musical had a tryout in 2011 at Seattle's 5th Ave. Theatre under the title "Saving Aimee." David Armstrong, the theater's artistic director who also directed the Broadway production, said that Foursquare leaders attended performances in Seattle, but the church foundation didn't become an investor until after that run.

Several news organizations reported the show's budget at $9 million. Jeffrey Finn, the show's executive producer, wouldn't disclose the budget but confirmed that the musical failed to recoup its investment.

That's not uncommon on Broadway, where about four out of five shows close without returning a profit for their investors, according to the Broadway League, a trade group for the Broadway theater industry.

It is rare but not unheard of for a religious organization to invest in a Broadway show. Last season, the Broadway musical "Leap of Faith" received a modest $50,000 investment from the Passionists of the Province of St. Paul of the Cross, according to the Catholic organization, which is based in New York.

Another major investor in "Scandalous" was the Cantinas Ranch Foundation, a Malibu Christian nonprofit group that isn't affiliated with Foursquare but lists Campbell as one of its board members.

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