In the bowels of a small New York theater in a seedy section of town, Kathie Lee Gifford (search) is being a little naughty.

"So I'm having a little vino," she says sweetly. "So sue me."

OK, OK. Take it easy, Mrs. Gifford.

The wine, it's soon clear, functions in a nerve-steadying role: Gifford is bracing for one of the final rehearsals of her first musical -- the first step in a new career as, of all things, a playwright.

Four years after leaving her post as the burbling co-host of "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee," (search) Gifford insists she's found joy in the world of theater and far away from the TV camera.

"You know, I turned 50 a year and a half ago, and I'm like, 'Why am I so . . . happy about that?' I think it has to do with the fact that I could have the kind of life I wanted," she says. "It enabled me to take time -- for the first time in life -- to do something right."

Gifford's new "stage project" -- for which she supplied the book, lyrics and some of the music -- is "Under the Bridge," (search) an adaptation of a children's book about a hobo who befriends a homeless family in Paris.

Though she doesn't perform, Gifford has shown up virtually every day at the tiny Zipper Theatre to fine-tune the show, the first of three musicals she has in the works. She's also 120 pages into her first novel.

"Menopause is helpful, actually," she says, with the deadpan humor TV viewers once lapped up. "Because I can't sleep anyway, I might as well be up doing something productive."

From the balcony seats in the theater far west of Broadway's bright lights, Gifford watches like a proud mommy as workers hoist ladders and electricians fix lights for the evening's performance.

She still is goofy -- she will shut one eye completely like a drunken sailor when she knows she's being corny -- and still elegant, with perfectly applied makeup and hair the color of burnished gold, and as straight as a sheet of paper. But while she is the first to mock herself, Gifford is no pushover. Her steely gaze can emerge when things irk her, as when a sound technician makes the mistake of blasting Bob Marley through the speakers.

"That we could do without, sweetie!" she bellows with the same tone as a mother watching her child put a worm in his mouth. "It's not exactly French!"

Then she jokingly mimes taking a drag from a marijuana cigarette. The reaction seems classic Gifford -- both the hollier-than-thou matron on the one hand, and the down-to-Earth jokester who can undercut her own pretense on the other.

Director Eric Schaeffer says Gifford's skills as a lyricist and songwriter shouldn't be pooh-poohed simply because of her Martha Stewart-like image, one that you either love or loathe.

"My friends have said with some puzzlement, 'You're working with Kathie Lee? ' " he says. "I said, 'You're going to be surprised.' It's a shame, really. I think of what she is portrayed as not who she is."

Gifford is not wistful about the 15 years she spent opposite Regis Philbin, a spotlight made increasingly uncomfortable by the public humiliation of husband Frank Gifford's tabloid-fueled affair and allegations that her Wal-Mart clothing line was produced in sweatshops.

"It got very old very fast," she says. "I could be in an insane asylum with everything that's gone on. I could have killed somebody or be in jail, or killed myself. You have to somehow find that place to put it that makes sense."

She didn't realize at the time the toll the show -- with its endless recitation of mundane daily musings and constant ribbing that is now the current life of replacement Kelly Ripa -- was taking on her creative psyche.

"Nobody ever got on television before and talked about their life for a living. That's what we did. It was OK when I was young, when I was single and childless. But once I started impacting the people I loved, then it became harmful," Gifford says.

It is in theater where Gifford has found a new outlet beyond the TV personality that cooed endlessly about her children or the syrupy sweet Christian singer that once pumped out CDs.

"The music, the writing, the spirituality and the life experience didn't all come together until I started writing for theater. I see that now," she says.

"All those years I was singing -- trying to find the meaning in everybody else's lyrics -- was so I would know how to write one now. All those years in the spotlight was so I'd know what my actors were going through, all those years trying to be understood, instead of being misunderstood."

Gifford's latest project was inspired when her daughter, Cassidy, then in second grade, suggested they tackle Natalie Savage Carlson's "The Family Under the Bridge" as part of nightly story time. The slim book didn't seem very promising: A hobo was its hero. The heroine was a penniless widow struggling with three children. Thieving gypsies were depicted as romantic figures.

Gifford was hesitant at first and tried to steer Cassidy elsewhere. ("So I'm not the perfect mother, all right?" she jokes.) But once they plowed through it, Gifford saw deeper themes, such as racism, materialism and classism.

"When I was reading the book, I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, there should be a song in this scene and I know exactly what it should say,"" she says. "It took far longer to get the rights for the piece than it took to write it."

The play that emerged -- with David Pomeranz supplying most of the music -- is both touching and comical, with songs that are clean and hummable. A typical lyric: "Life is so funny/So much depends/On whether you become lovers/Or you remain friends."

Gifford, whose only Broadway credit occurred in 1999 when she stepped in for an ailing Carol Burnett in Stephen Sondheim's "Putting It Together," also plans a second musical, "Hurricane Aimee," based on the true life story of spiritual pioneer Aimee Semple McPherson. A third play is based entirely on her imagination.

Of course, a lot is riding on "Under the Bridge," and Gifford knows her new career may depend on it being a hit. That won't stop her, though.

"This might be a failure," she says. "I've had lots of failures. I don't see them that way -- I learned from absolutely every one of them. I didn't hurt anybody in the process."

So whatever happens, you haven't heard the last of Kathie Lee Gifford.

"Our culture is saying to me, especially a woman in this industry, 'It's over for you.' It's saying, 'You, the women who are ovulating -- step to the front!' And I'm going, 'You know what? I'm more creative now than I've ever been in my life.' I have more to offer because of what I've lived.

"Everybody always talks about growing old gracefully. I want to grow old gratefully."