Learn about Elton John's award-winning music career in pop, theatre, and beyond

John is the composer of the new musical Tammy Faye, about the infamous title televangelist.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the most talked-about openings this winter is the new musical Tammy Faye at London’s Almeida Theatre. Based on the colourful life of the massively popular American televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim, the show has music by pop icon Elton John, lyrics by the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, a script by hit TV and stage writer James Graham, and direction by the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold.

Not only that, it stars West End and Broadway legends: Katie Brayben, who won an Olivier Award for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, and Andrew Rannells, a Tony nominee for The Book of Mormon and Falsettos who has also appeared on film in The Prom and on TV in Girls.

Tammy Faye has a heavenly collection of talent, but there is particular interest in John’s score. Not only is he one of the greatest songwriters in pop music history, but he has also proven his considerable talent in musical theatre too, having composed The Lion King, Aida, and Billy Elliot. Will the Rocket Man give us another score that’s out of this world? Read on for our guide to John’s incredible career and what we can expect from Tammy Faye.

Elton John’s pop career

Born Reginald Dwight in 1947, Elton John has had an extraordinary run in pop music – largely through his collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin, with John writing and performing their songs. The pair met in 1967 and had their first big hit with “Your Song” in 1970; the song was a top 10 single in both the U.K. and America.

John went on to sell a whopping 300 million records during his six decades in the industry, including nine number one singles and seven consecutive number one albums in the US. His songs have become an intrinsic part of our culture – exciting, boldly expressive, musically complex, and deeply felt. His run of hits includes “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “The Bitch is Back,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “I Guess That’s Why The Call It the Blues,” and “I’m Still Standing.”

John also became an indelible part of history when he and Taupin rewrote their song “Candle in the Wind” as a dedication to the late Princess Diana, and John subsequently performed it at her funeral. The tribute number became the highest-selling single since the charts began in the 1950s and sold 33 million worldwide. It won a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Performance – one of John’s five Grammys total. Most recently, he collaborated with Britney Spears on the 2022 track “Hold Me Closer,” a riff on "Tiny Dancer."

Elton John’s musicals

Perhaps his transition to musicals wasn’t too surprising, given John’s fondness for a big, dramatic performance and the emotional complexity of his songwriting. He worked wonders in Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King, which became a stage hit three years later. John collaborated with lyricist Tim Rice on the soundtrack, which they hoped would appeal equally to kids and adults with an accessible pop sound.

The result was five brilliant original songs: “Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” All advance the story, develop the characterisation and world-building, and are fantastic earworms. The soundtrack, including Hans Zimmer’s stirring instrumental score, was a massive seller: It was certified Diamond (which means 10x Platinum). John and Rice won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” They also received a Tony nomination when the film became a Broadway musical, which went on to equal success in the West End and worldwide.

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John and Rice finally got their Tony Award for Best Original Score in 2000, for another Disney production: Aida. Inspired by Verdi’s opera of the same name, the epic Ancient Egypt-set tale features a love triangle between enslaved Nubian princess Aida, soldier Radames, and the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris. Radames and Amneris are betrothed, and their nation is at war with Aida's, making the secret romance between Aida and Radames forbidden. The show's breakout hit “Written in the Stars” was recorded by singer LeAnn Rimes.

Then, in 2005, John supplied a new score for the stage adaptation of the hit British film Billy Elliot. The musical, about a young boy in County Durham who has a gift for ballet, premiered in the West End to huge acclaim. It was nominated for nine Olivier Awards and won four, including Best New Musical. The Broadway version was even more lauded, winning a whopping ten Tony Awards. John received widespread praise for his score, which included stirring numbers like “Solidarity” and “Electricity.”

Elton John’s score for Tammy Faye

So, what might John have in store for audiences with his latest musical? There aren't any details yet, but the music of Tammy Faye is sure to be energetic and thrilling. John has amazing material to work with, covering Faye’s rise to fame in the 1970s with husband Jim Bakker on Christian television, and the pair's spectacular crash. Their show The PTL Club (“Praise the Lord”) became a big business, generating an annual profit of $120 million.

Faye was an outspoken and sometimes controversial figure, wading into taboo topics among her fundamentalist evangelist community, like LGBT rights. But the Bakkers’ downfall actually came when it was revealed that Jim Bakker had try to pay off a woman who claimed he raped her. The size of the alleged payoff led to scrutiny of the couple’s extravagant lifestyle and fraudulent business practices. PTL eventually went bankrupt, and Jim Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Plus, Faye was a wonderfully flamboyant figure, as portrayed on screen in 2021 by Jessica Chastain, who won an Oscar for her performance. Other stage musicals about Tammy Faye have been developed or discussed (including a long-rumoured project with Kristin Chenoweth), so it will be fascinating to see John, in collaboration with the rest of the creative team, put his particular stamp on the material.

Photo credit: Elton John (Photo courtesy of David Shankbone on Flickr)

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