Born Sophie Kalish, Tucker became a star of the Ziegfeld Follies and the Earl Carroll Vanities, going on to appear in the 1938 Cole Porter musical Leave It to Me (with Mary Martin) and in High Kickers in 1941. Her movie credits include Honky Tonk (1929), Broadway Melody of 1938 (in which she plays Judy Garland's mother!), Thoroughbreds Don't Cry , and Follow the Boys (1944), not to mention a cameo appearance as herself in The Joker Is Wild (1957, starring Frank Sinatra as nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis). Her autobiography, Some of These Days, was published in 1945.
Though Tucker is long gone, you can get an idea of what she was like courtesy of Red Hot Mama at the York Theatre, a one-woman show written by and starring the dynamic Sharon McNight. For her Broadway debut in Starmites, McNight received a Tony nomination as well as a Theatre World award. Audiences also know her from her work in Amanda McBroom's Heartbeats and Nunsense, as well as her string of cabaret appearances. (Her act famously features a capsulized version of The Wizard of Oz in which she plays all the roles.) McNight has six solo recordings, the latest of which is entitled Songs to Offend Almost Everyone. Our TheaterMania interview occurred just prior to the opening of Red Hot Mama at the York last week.
THEATERMANIA: Why did you choose Sophie Tucker as the subject of a one-woman show?
SHARON McNIGHT: When I was directing plays--I don't want to say the year--I did a production of Jesus Christ Superstar; Harry Groener was my Jesus. The guy who was the Mr. Fix-It at the theater said, "You remind me of Sophie Tucker." I said, "Yeah, I kind of remember her from The Ed Sullivan Show." Years go by and another guy signs me to a record contract; he has a dream, wakes up the next morning, and calls my manager. In his dream, he saw me playing Sophie Tucker on a Broadway stage. That was about 1980. I got a copy of her biography and I thought, "This is kind of like my life," so I started doing research. A friend brought me his entire collection of Sophie Tucker songs [on cassette]. In 1996, I did The Sophie Tucker Songbook for two shows at Rainbow & Stars, and bingo! Then it was a matter of being patient, not underselling the project. [She slips into Sophie Tucker's voice:] Good things come to he who waits. [As herself again:] Everywhere I go, I channel Sophie!
TM: You've also portrayed Mae West, who, like Tucker, used a lot of double entendre in her act. Today's entertainers often seem to go with "single entendre."
McNIGHT: People today don't have wit; they don't have verbal skills. You have to be pretty smart and clever. Instead of saying "Fuck you," you say, "Put it where the sun don't shine." That has a little turn to it.
TM: A friend of mine who knew Sophie Tucker complains that the Tucker jokes told by Bette Midler in her act are vulgar, whereas Tucker was never vulgar.
McNIGHT: Just to clear that up: Those jokes were written by Bruce Vilanch. He wrote them without having any knowledge of Sophie Tucker at all. For one thing, she never had a boyfriend named Ernie. Boy! I can't tell you, over the last six years, how many times I've heard: "How's your boyfriend, Ernie?" There never was one!
TM: You do mention Tucker's husbands in your show.
McNIGHT: Yes. She was married three times.
TM: What's the structure of the piece?
McNIGHT: Sophie's at the Latin Quarter [the New York nightclub that was owned by Barbara Walters' father], reminiscing. She thinks about Elmira, New York and her first job in burlesque. She did very well in burlesque--went on to make $75 a week. Then her agent gave her an offer of $60 a week in vaudeville. That was a big decision. She took the $60 and the rest is history.
TM: How has Red Hot Mama developed since Rainbow & Stars?
McNIGHT: I always wanted it to be a play. I did a 55-minute version at the Spoleto Music Festival in South Carolina; I took it to Provincetown; it's been in San Francisco three different times and in Los Angeles twice; I took it to Chicago and then back to Provincetown. It became Red Hot Mama in Denver, where it ran six months at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After that, I was asked to come to Lucille Lortel's White Barn Theatre in Connecticut. We played Santa Fe, and now here we are at the York. We were going to be here for the summer but we moved it up when one of their other shows fell through.
TM: Where were you born?
McNIGHT: Modesto, California...but, as soon as I could get out, I moved to San Francisco.
TM: Is McNight your real name?
McNIGHT: No, it's a stage name. McKnight is my real name. My father was a mailman; his badge number was 13, a number that we're not afraid of in my family. In the credits for something I'd done, they dropped the 'K,' and it looked pretty cool. It was around the time that Dionne Warwick added a letter to her name, so I dropped the 'K' to make my name 13 letters. It took the San Francisco Examiner 17 years to spell my name correctly--and that's my hometown!
TM: What was it like to be nominated for a Tony Award for Starmites?
McNIGHT: Exciting. It was also exciting to get a Hirschfeld [caricature]. I played Diva, Queen of Innerspace, Queen of the Banshees.
TM: Do you have any plans following Red Hot Mama?
McNIGHT: I need a vacation!