When Sharon McNight brings her Sophie Tucker tribute “Red Hot Mama” to theaters around the country, she is often introducing Tucker’s work to people who have never heard of the once world-famous singer before.
That won’t be the case in Connecticut, where “Red Hot Mama” plays at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury Feb. 15 through March 11.
Tucker, one of the best-known entertainers of the first half of the 20th century, grew up in Hartford. The first place she sang in public was at her parents’ business, Abuza’s Family Restaurant on Front Street.
When Sophie Tucker was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999, McNight was there performing some of her classic songs.
In her 1945 autobiography “Some of These Days,” Tucker writes about returning to Hartford in 1913 to play Poli’s Theatre, following a series of successes on Broadway and on the national vaudeville circuit. “Now I was going to headline the ace house in my own hometown,” she writes.
“Now we’re getting into Hartford,” the recollection goes. “The sun shines on the Capitol’s big gold dome. There’s Bushnell Park with the trees all red and gold. We’re pulling into the station. There’s Mama and Papa. And Son, God bless him, home from school for the week. And Anna and Moe and Brother Phil and his wife. And a big crowd, and every reporter in town. Up on the boardings, and plastered all over the city, are posters: ‘Sophie Tucker, The Pride of Hartford — Hartford’s Own Sophie Tucker.’ Think that didn’t make me feel good?”
“Red Hot Mama” has McNight belting such Tucker hits as “Hula Lou,” “If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love (Then Your Tears Won’t Bring Him Back)” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” At Seven Angels, McNight says, “You’re getting the full-blown off-Broadway version of this show. There’s also a concert version.”
A recent phone interview finds McNight behaving as brassily and sassily as Tucker herself, joking about how bad her cell phone is (“I can’t call the land line in my own house when I’m standing in it!”) and delivering frank opinions about Tucker’s life and legacy.
She began doing Tucker decades ago, when “someone in Chicago told me I sounded like her. This was before the internet, so someone brought me a lot of cassettes of her singing. I hadn’t realized that songs I’d already been doing in my cabaret act were hers.
“I was signed to a record deal in 1980. In 1984, the guy who signed me had a dream that I was playing Sophie Tucker on a Broadway stage.”
The dream, and subsequent talk about a full stage biography of Tucker, led McNight to read Tucker’s book “Some of These Days.”
“I thought, ‘This is my life.’ This woman was on the road for 60 years. Now, I haven’t been on the road for 60 years, but it has been about 40.”
Besides singing Tucker’s songs, “Red Hot Mama” features McNight telling the story of Tucker’s life, backed by a music combo of piano, bass and drums.
“There are costume changes,” she says. “We start in 1956, then go back to 1906 when her career began and move forward as the eras go by.”
McNight scripted the show herself, as it became distinct from the Tucker impersonation she was doing in her cabaret act.
“It started becoming this in maybe 1986, then I really started to get it together in the early ‘90s. It was off Broadway in 2002.”
In the Seven Angels Theatre lobby during the run of “Red Hot Mama,” McNight will display her own collection of sheet music of Tucker songs, emblazoned with the singer’s face on the covers. She calls sheet music “The Facebook of its time.”
Sharon McNight is a devout fan, and a fierce defender, of the legendary Sophie Tucker. When Abuza’s Family Restaurant is mentioned, McNight adds proudly: “It was was the only kosher restaurant in Hartford, I’ll have you know.”
She peppers her discussion of Tucker with superlatives and record-setting feats. She’s visited many sites associated with the star.
“I did the Friars Club in Los Angeles. Sophie Tucker was the first female member of the Friars Club. There’s a photo in the club of her with a large feather. I use that image in my show.”
McNight has also been to the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, whose Golden Empire Dining Room club space was once graced by Tucker. “Backstage, there’s a dressing room, with a three-by-five-foot portrait of her framed on the wall,” McNight says. “I had to stand on a chair to get my picture taken with it.”
She’s also visited Sophie Tucker’s grave at the Emanuel Synagogue cemetery in Wethersfield.
McNight has her own connections to Connecticut. For nine years she was part of the International Cabaret Conference held during the summer at Yale University. (The conference ended five years ago following the death of its founder Erv Raible). She has also taught at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. When the consummate Southern Connecticut interview question arises, “Sally’s or Pepe’s?,” McNight demurs: I go to the pastry shop down the street.” McNight knows Seven Angels Theatre’s Artistic Director Semina De Laurentis from when they appeared together for a year, 30 years ago, in a Los Angeles production of “Nunsense.”
Because of her lengthy career, singular vocal style and immense fame, Sophie Tucker became an easy reference point for other performers. Lenny Bruce did a routine comparing how much money Tucker and other entertainers made in Las Vegas to the much lower salaries of Nevada schoolteachers. In 1963, The Beatles introduced the cover song “‘Till There Was You” as having been “recorded by our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker.”
“A lot of people know who she was from ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’” McNight says. Tucker performed on the TV variety show 16 times between 1951 and 1965, giving her final appearance just four months before she died in February 1966.
Modern audiences know Tucker’s style secondhand because of Bette Midler’s character “Soph,” who tells bawdy stories about her love life.
McNight takes exception to this material, which was written expressly for Midler by comedian Bruce Vilanch (a friend and neighbor of McNight’s) and differs from Tucker’s own style.
“She was risqué for her day,” McNight says, “but the whole ‘my boyfriend’ thing is not her.”
McNight also doesn’t agree with recent biographers who’ve speculated that Tucker was a lesbian, saying that there’s no real proof.
Tucker’s hits range from torch songs such as “Some of These Days” and “The Man I Love” to dialect numbers like “My Yiddishe Momme” and the empowerment anthems “Aren’t Women Wonderful?,” “I Ain’t Takin’ Orders From No One!” and “Life Begins at Forty.”
“She preached independence for women before it was fashionable,” McNight says.
RED HOT MAMA, starring Sharon McNight, runs Feb. 15 through March 11 at Seven Angels Theatre, 1 Plank Road, Waterbury. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $40 to $49. 203-757-4676 and sevenangelstheatre.org.