A Matter of Timing : A Boost for the Born-Again, Broadway-Bound 'Elmer Gantry'

Times Staff Writer

Casey Biggs was in Washington preparing for opening night Saturday at Ford's Theatre, when he heard reports of trouble and sex and the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart. He was stunned.

Biggs, 32, is the lead in the new musical "Elmer Gantry." And he had prepared for his role by watching Swaggart, the fiery TV preacher who over the weekend made a tearful public admission of having sinned.

"I based my whole bearing on Jimmy Swaggart," he said. "What's interesting is that the (musical's) writer, John Bishop, had come for the final rehearsals. And his only note to me was: 'You've got to have more secrets.'

"Well, lo and behold. . . ."

(The Assemblies of God church on Monday bounced Swaggart from his TV pulpit for three months after accepting his "true humility and repentance" for sexual misconduct.)

The "Gantry" show, set in pre-television Depression times, is based on Sinclair Lewis' novel about an ex-divinity student and con man supreme and his consuming love for a lovely, ambitious evangelist.

Richard Brooks made the novel into an Oscar-winning 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons.

When Biggs initially heard reports of Swaggart's woes, he said in a phone interview from Washington, the first thought that went through his mind was that "it's life imitating advertising."

The Broadway-bound musical, with Mel Marvin's score, Biggs, and co-star Sharon Scruggs as evangelist Sister Sharon got rave reviews from the Washington Post's David Richards.

Even without that, though, "Elmer Gantry" would be a press agent's dream, opening as it did just a day before Swaggart joined another celebrated TV minister--Jim Bakker, whom Swaggart last year denounced for adultery--in headlines and public repentance.

It's just an incredible coincidence, said the show's co-producer, Joseph Cates, a veteran television producer here who is on his second version of a musical based on Lewis' best-selling novel.

Yes, he said, there is "a lot of attention on evangelism" now. "It started with Jim and Tammy Bakker, the Falwell dispute and Pat Robertson's run for the presidency. But . . . I started this (present version) three years ago."

His first attempt was called "Gantry." It co-starred English actor Robert Shaw and Rita Moreno and was written by a different team. It folded after one performance on Broadway in 1970.

Cates' interest in "Gantry" dates back to the years he produced country music shows for the networks, including 14 years with Johnny Cash.

"It was through him that I got to meet Billy Graham and Oral Roberts and Rex Humphries," Cates said. "And I became really aware, particularly working down there (in the South), of the impact of born-again Christians and the evangelists.

"And it always had been such a strong story. It always held a fascination for me."

Biggs, who lives in New York, is a Juilliard-trained actor whose credits include two years on tour with John Houseman's The Acting Company, "The Country Wife" Off-Broadway, "All the King's Men" in Washington, and a few TV things, among them the pilot for CBS' "The Equalizer."

Possessed of a high baritone that can soar well up into tenor range, he had to fight for what he considers his once-in-a-lifetime role as a musical Elmer Gantry. However, the fight was not the usual kind.

His agents wanted him to fly to Los Angeles instead this year to audition for TV pilots, he said: "I had to actually go and and wage a battle to get them to agree with me about doing this role."

For producer Cates, getting the show into a 12-week run at Ford's Theatre was a tad easier. For the last 11 years, he has worked on annual fund-raisers for the 699-seat theater with its executive director Frances Hewitt.

"One day, she asked what (else) I was doing," he recalled. "I told her, and she fell in love with the project, and this is the result."

Hewitt is Cates' co-producer for "Gantry," which has a cast of 16 and a six-piece band. The band, no doubt will be larger when the show moves to Broadway, which Cates plans to do in June.

The move will cost nearly $3 million, he said.

Cates' immediate concern this week was partner Hewitt's worry that his idea for a new "Elmer Gantry" ad would be "vulgarizing a little bit" the Swaggart scandal.

The ad, admittedly born in the wake of that uproar, would have three rows of pictures, Cates said, laughing as he considered it. "The first row would be Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker.

"Then on the second row I'd run Pat Robertson. And then I'd run Elmer Gantry and Sharon Falconer, the two leads."

And the headline, Cates said, would be this:

"TWO OF THESE PEOPLE ARE COMING TO BROADWAY."

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