Broadway flop ‘Scandalous’ a costly investment for Foursquare Church
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.
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.
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.
“We invested in ‘Scandalous’ because we believe in its strong message and know it has affected many lives positively,” Cantinas leaders Wayne and Wendy Hughes said in a statement. They declined to say how much they invested in the musical.
Foursquare claims more than 8 million members worldwide. The church — whose headquarters and flagship venue of worship, the Angelus Temple, are in Echo Park — says it has more than 1,700 churches in the U.S. alone and a presence in 140 countries and territories.
The Foursquare Foundation made average grants of just under $5 million annually from 2009 to 2011, according to its annual reports. A $2-million loss on “Scandalous” would amount to 1.2% of the foundation’s 2011 assets of $164.4 million.
“Scandalous” isn’t the first Foursquare Church investment to go bad with serious consequences: In 2004, the church’s president and treasurer resigned in the wake of a $14-million loss. The church entrusted money to two outside entities that federal officials described as Ponzi schemes.
On Sunday, some parishioners at the Church on the Way, a Foursquare megachurch in Van Nuys, offered their opinions on the “Scandalous” investment when approached by a reporter after services.
One parishioner, who would only use his first name, Chip, said he had followed the “Scandalous” run on Broadway and was disappointed that it had failed commercially.
But he said that he supported the church’s decision to invest in the show.
Another parishioner, who declined to give his name, said he also supported the church’s decision to spend money on the musical because of the possibilities for evangelism outside church walls.
Dan Rupple, an Orange County-based Foursquare pastor who’s also a comedy writer and a former production supervisor of “Late Show With David Letterman” and “The Price Is Right,” said that he’d thought the church’s investment in “Scandalous” was “a good idea” — although he had no firsthand knowledge of the decision.
Despite the inherent financial risks involved in show business, Rupple said he hopes Foursquare won’t shut the door on bids to combine evangelism with entertainment when warranted.
“On some projects, I think the church should take a roll,” he said. “The media is the language of the day.”
A Broadway cast recording of the musical is scheduled to be released this spring. Finn said that the Broadway producers, including Foursquare, could recoup some of their investment if other theaters decide to mount their own productions of the show.
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