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Kathie Lee Gifford's life after "Live'

From the back seat of her private car, Kathie Lee Gifford spies a Christmas tree on a Ninth Avenue curb.

"There's something so sad about discarded Christmas trees," she says, before the car stops in front of the Zipper Theatre, where Under the Bridge, a new musical with book and lyrics by Gifford, opened Thursday night.

"They're like women in their 50s, like, "Hey you! The one who's ovulating! Get over here and replace this dry one!' "

Though it's been almost five years since she left Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, Gifford maintains the qualities that made her one of the most loved and loathed figures in talk show history.

At 51, she is still candid, excitable and quick to present the personal _ to lament, for example, the rigors of menopause: irregular sleeping patterns, 10 new pounds that force her to cut back on wine, constant hot flashes.

"I'm telling you, you can fry an egg on my face at any moment," she says.

But one thing she has learned with age is to keep mum on her family life _ the life that became the center of a media maelstrom when tabloids exposed the infidelity of her husband, New York Giants legend Frank Gifford, in 1997.

Three years after the scandal, she told People magazine how the couple fell in love again.

"We stayed in bed," she said. "Because each time you make love, that person feels forgiven, and you feel restored and loved again. Let me just smile and say I have no complaints."

All she'll say on the record now is: "Anything I've had to say about (my marriage) I've said. I've spent years talking about my life. Now I want to talk about my work."

Under the Bridge is based on Natalie Savage Carlson's Newberry Award-winning book about a homeless Parisian man who befriends an impoverished family with three children. Gifford wrote the lyrics and book by hand on legal pads and has two more musicals in the works.

The first, Hurricane Aimee, chronicles the life of scandalous 1920s faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson. Gifford's original work, In Canaan's Eyes, follows two families, one rich and one poor, whose sons fight in World War II. There are also 120 pages of a novel "which may never see the light of day," she says, written in part at her Connecticut waterfront home.

Rather than missing the spotlight of television stardom, Gifford, famously the mother of Cody, 14, and Cassidy, 11, says her current projects allow her to explore and expose varied interests.

"I am a student of philosophy. I like good books and poetry. But that didn't go over so well at 9 in the morning when Regis wanted to talk about Notre Dame," she says.

Staying behind the scenes also keeps Gifford far from the media's "unforgiving microscope," a product of a "very rude society" that "burns anything under it," she says.

Instead, Gifford hopes to touch audiences in a new way. In one song, He Is With You, a gypsy explains to a widow that her dead husband is never far from her heart. Gifford says she wrote the song the day she brought her ailing father, Aaron Epstein, "home to die." Last week, an audience member came to her in tears, explaining that the song helped to heal the pain of recently losing a son.

"To touch a woman so deeply in pain is the greatest review I can get in life," she says. "And if that sounds trite to someone, they've got a malignancy of the soul."

Whether or not Gifford still battles with the pain of her husband's betrayal remains to be seen.

"I may someday talk about what I've been through," she says. "I have no idea. Maybe I will write a musical about it."

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