Red Hot Mama Sharon
By Kanan Abramson
For the last twenty-two years, Sharon McNight conducted a research into the life and songs of show business legend, Sophie Tucker. Now, she portrays Sophie's charismatic character and electrifying stage presence, in her own extraordinary one-woman play-musical, Red Hot Mama.
It took Sharon McNight twenty-two years since the time she first learned of legendary Jewish entertainer Sophie Tucker (1884-1966), a Vaudeville headliner, to the debut of her one-woman show, Red Hot Mama, at the York Theatre, on 54th Street and Lexington Avenue, in New York City. The show, a mixture of a play and a musical, features the life and art of the famous Zigfeld girl, who broke into show business in 1906 - and guess where - on Lexington Avenue, singing for $20 a week.
Sharon, a native Californian (Modesto) actress and singer came across Sophie's name when, back in 1972, she practiced her voice singing in a church. Listening to her, a church handyman told her that her voice resembled that of Sophie's. It took another eight years, until it hit her once again, in 1980, while she was busy producing two records. At the recording studio, the producer of her records told her about a dream he had the night before, in which she portrayed Sophie Tucker on Broadway. Remembering the church handyman and his remark, Sharon began researching Sophie's life and sixty years long career.
The research began at the Lincoln Center library, where Sharon located a complete collection of Sophie's songs. Theses were found on Party Records from the 1950's. Sophie's materials were Risque Humor and Risque Songs. Then, one day, a fan handed Sharon a full set of Sophie's recordings. She studied the songs and included some of them in her cabaret repertories.
As a child, Sharon studied piano, flute, tap and hula, as well as classic ballet and involved herself in Ballroom Dancing. Yet, all of that time she had a hidden desire to become an actress. Following high school, Sharon had already directed children's theatres and shortly after completed her Masters degree in directing. That time, she discovered she had a huge voice.
Desperate of not finding acting jobs, Sharon turned to singing. She performed in nightclubs nationwide, from California to New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and more. In the beginning, she had to overcome hardships and obstacles, pushing herself into nightclubs, until nightclubs owners have realized that she made them some money. The results were a rising demand for her performances and by word of mouth.
All that time, Sharon continued to develop the Sophie Tucker project. She busied herself getting into Sophie's character. The resources were extremely limited. She studied Sophie's body language from Sophie's movie, Broadway Melody of 1937, by MGM, in which Judy Garland played Sophie's daughter, then from another movie of Sophie's, Some of these Days, which is also the title of another Sophie's hit song. There were also some clips from the Ed Sullivan TV shows, which were of great help.
Sharon has no Jewish background, but she got hooked on Sophie because "Sophie Tucker was the best female entertainer who ever lived and her first recording was produced by Thomas Edison's company." In addition, what attracted Sharon was the fact that so many giant musicians and lyricists wrote Sophie's songs. What helped significantly in putting Sharon's Red Hot Mama was the fact, that "Sophie always had a new act and always dressed the best."
Sophie's autobiography was a good source in locating long forgotten songs and their roots, as well as who wrote and composed them. Some of them were never recorded on records, like Blue Skies which was found in a radio station recording archive. There's also a beautiful song written by Rogers and Hammerstein in her honor, which was sand by Frank Sinatra. Sophie's career as a Vaudeville headliner ended with a fire in the Palace Theatre. The headlines of the next day read, "Red Hot Mama's Song So Hot, Palace Burns."
Red Hot Mama was put together and executed solely by Sharon, who conceived, wrote and directed the show, for which she also designed the outfits based on Sophie's originals. Add to all these Sharon's performance for ninety minutes non-stop (no intermission...) and you can appreciate her full scale contribution to this nostalgic show. There were, of course others who helped putting the show together, but the credit for this artistic creation is wholly Sharon's.
One of Sophie's highlights, a song that sold over a million records (In the late 1920's!!), was My Yiddishe Momma . The song was written especially for Sophie by Jack Yellen, who insisted that she learns to speak Yiddish, otherwise he wouldn't let her sing it. Sophie learned Yiddish and so did Sharon, whose version of My Yiddishe Momma is stunning and brought out many tears in the audience.
Sharon made her Broadway debut in 1989 in Starmites, creating the role of Diva. She received a Tony Award nomination as Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and is a recipient of the coveted Theatre World Award for outstanding Broadway Debut. Aside many regional credits, Sharon was featured in the recent A&E documentary, It's Burlesque, for her research on Sophie Tucker and Mae West. This year, Sharon is celebrating her 23rd year in cabaret. She's also most noted for her movie reenactment of The Wizard of Oz and for being one of the few real women to impersonate Bette Davis.
Sharon has six solo recordings to her credit. The most recent is Songs to Offend Almost Everyone. In contrast is The Sophie Tucker Songbook, which contains the music of the one-woman show based on the show business legend. The Sophie Tucker Songbook debuted in 1996 at New York's Rainbow & Stars as part of an ASCAP Sunday Night Showcase.
When asked about the greatest day of her life, Sharon replies inhesitantly, "When I quit smoking."
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