Hartford’s own Sophie Tucker comes to life in “Red Hot Mama”
By Stacey Dresner
WATERBURY – In 1972, Sharon McNight was directing a play in Chicago when someone mentioned that her voice was reminiscent of Sophie Tucker.
“I’ve got that Broadway, Ethel Merman voice – shouts to the back wall,” she explains.
Years went by. Then in the 1980s someone she worked with in the music industry told her he had had a dream about her.
“His dream was he saw me performing as Sophie Tucker on the Broadway stage,” she recalled.
Unfamiliar with Tucker, McNight got a hold of her autobiography, Some of These Days…, named after one of the signature songs of the entertainer known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.”
“I read the book and I said, ‘That’s my life,’” McNight said.
McNight went on to write the musical “Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story,” which will play at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury now through March 11.
The one-woman show features McNight as Tucker “and her life and her struggles,” she says. The musical takes place both on stage as Tucker performs in a nightclub act, and backstage where she tells her life story.
“I perform her songs, I tell her story about her life. I am her,” she says.
When McNight began to write “Red Hot Mama” in the 1980s, she researched Tucker.
“That was before the Internet,” she recalls. “But when I announced that I was thinking of doing a show about her, some guy had all of her records and he made cassette with copies of all of her songs and gave them to me as a gift to give me inspiration. I still have the cassettes; I just couldn’t throw them away.”
McNight realized that some of the songs she had sung in her own cabaret act were actually songs Tucker had written and sung as early as 1919.
“I didn’t realize that a lot of the songs I had been doing like, “Darktown Strutters Ball,” were hers,” she marveled.
Sophie Tucker was born Sophie Kalish in the Ukraine to Charles and Jennie Kalish. They soon fled the shtetl for America.
“She was born in a cart on the way over to the boat. Her poor mother,” McNight lamented.
Sophie’s father had left the Ukraine first, “running away from the Czar,” says McNight, who includes some of that history in “Red Hot Mama.”
“’It seemed the Czar didn’t look too kindly upon the Jews. We were the chosen people – in more ways than one,’” says McNight in one of her lines from the show.
Tucker’s family ended up in Hartford and changed their last name to Abuza. When still a child, Sophie sang for customers at Abuza’s Home Restaurant, her parents’ kosher restaurant on Front Street in Hartford. Just a few years later, she had made a name for herself on the Vaudeville stage.
At 16, Sophie had married Louis Tuck and gave birth to their son, Albert. But at 18, dreaming of show biz, she left her son with her sister, Anna, and went to New York City. She went on to become one of the most famous performers in America.
McNight says that putting “Red Hot Mama” together took many years.
“It started out in cabaret, in nightclubs, and I wanted to expand it to a play that had a book,” she explains. “So there are two versions. There is the version where I come out and do her nightclub act; I don’t go backstage. There are no scene changes. It is pretty basic.”
That version of the show won the Broadway.com Award for Best Show in 2015.
“Then it developed and I added more songs,” she says.
For an ASCAP benefit at “Rainbow and Stars” club at Rockefeller Center in the 1980s, she was asked to fill out her act about Sophie Tucker.
“I said, ‘This is my opportunity to put this all together.’ So I put together a string of songs, and wrote jokes and became her.”
McNight’s voice changes over the course of the 90-minute show, from that of Tucker’s higher voice as a young woman in the early 1900’s to the deeper, lower, gravelly voice of an older Sophie Tucker. And audiences respond.
“A lot of it is relating to the audience. I speak to the audience. It is a nightclub – that’s the way they did it.”
There are some references to Judaism in the show.
“Her second husband wasn’t Jewish and she confesses that to her mother on the phone,” McNight says.
And of course, she sings in Yiddish.
“She was the first to sell a million copies of a record in history of the recording business, and that song was ‘My Yiddishe Mama.’ She didn’t speak Yiddish, but the guy who wrote it, Jack Yellen, wouldn’t let her record it [in English] unless she sang it in Yiddish as well. So the “A” side of the record was in English, and the “B” side was in Yiddish.”
Tucker became known for that song, which she began performing in 1925 after her mother’s death. Despite her fame, Sophie had remained close to her family back in Hartford. She sent money home to Anna and her son, and to her mother, Jennie, who was very involved with the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Hartford. The idea of giving tzedakah stayed with Sophie forever.
“Red Hot Mama’s” run at the Seven Angel’s Theatre is not McNight’s first time in Connecticut. She worked for nine years at Yale’s Cabaret Conference summer program. She has also performed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford. In 1989, she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in “Starmites.”
And while she is working on other projects, including a show about another strong female performer – Mae West – she will spend her time transforming into Sophie Tucker at Seven Angels.
“She was a great entertainer. She made people laugh and made people cry and that’s my definition of an entertainer,” McNight says. “To be able to do what she did for 60 years in a male-dominated business is really remarkable. She was really tough!”
For more information about “Red Hot Mama,” call (203) 757-4676.
CAP: Sharon McNight in “Red Hot Mama” at Seven Angels Theatre.