Brash, full-figured and sexually frank, singer Sophie Tucker styled herself as what the title of one of her signature songs proclaimed to be the Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Tucker's career stretched from well before World War I to after World War II, and according to Liz McMahon, who will portray the singer in a show opening next week at Invisible Theatre, Sophie Tucker wasn't the last of anything.
"She was out there way ahead of anybody else with what you would think of a woman doing on stage," says McMahon. "She was the first of her kind, maybe. Bette Midler, Madonna, folks like that pushed the view of a woman's sexuality forward after that, with this image of women who are incredibly independent and have a lot of chutzpah. They must have Sophie in the back of their minds, whether they know it or not."
In Jack Fournier and Kathy Halenda's Sophie Tucker--An American Legend, McMahon sings 21 tunes associated with Tucker and chats, in character, about the entertainer's life. Musician Rob Boone is the show's music director and plays Ted Shapiro, who was Tucker's piano accompanist for 41 years and wrote some of her bawdier songs.
McMahon, who is more svelte and attractive than Tucker ever was, says she's not exactly attempting to resurrect Tucker in body and voice. "I'm trying to give the flavor of the time and how songs were performed in that time, but not impersonate her," she says. "She had a really wide vibrato, and did a lot of speaking in her songs, especially at the end of her career, when her voice wasn't what it used to be. I'm going to sing a little more than she did. But I'm hopefully going to entertain the audience the way she would have."
Born Sonia Kalish in Russia in 1884, Sophie arrived in the United States with her parents by the time she was 3. As a child, she sang for vaudeville entertainers and other customers at her parents' restaurant in Connecticut. At 16, she married a man named Tuck who soon left her; she expanded the name to Tucker and moved to New York to break into show business.
By 1906 she was working in vaudeville, but not so as her own mother would recognize her. "It was a big disappointment to her that they put her in floppy clothes and blackface because they thought she was too fat and ugly to sing as a white woman," says McMahon. "She was known as a coon shouter; isn't that a lovely term? Well, according to the story, her makeup trunk didn't make it to one of the shows on time, and that's how she first got out of blackface."
She was a headliner at the Ziegfield Follies by 1911, the year she first recorded one of her signature songs, "Some of These Days." With the blackface gone, gaudy costumes and Yiddish songs gradually worked their way into her act, which was already a mix of ballads and risqué comic numbers.
Tucker spent much of the 1920s in Broadway shows and making such hit records as "My Yiddische Mama" and "I'm the Last of the Red Hot Mamas." Hollywood beckoned in the 1930s. Her career was a great success, but her marriages and other liaisons were not, and she peppered her act with jokes about her misguided love life. Bette Midler would later revive some of Tucker's gags.
Tucker's voice and career began a gradual decline in the 1940s; the red-hot mama died in 1966, three years after her life story had been turned into the Broadway musical Sophie.
So what is Tucker's appeal after all these years?
"It's the message of her songs," McMahon asserts. "Her entire act is as relevant today as it was back then. She talked a lot about relationships and sexuality, which was unusual because she was a big woman herself and not considered desirable, but she used that to her own advantage. So the gender norms she challenged are still being challenged today."
Invisible Theatre's Susan Claassen, who co-directs this production with Gail Fitzhugh, discovered Sophie Tucker--An American Legend at a Florida theater, and talked McMahon into taking it on. "I was flattered that she was looking at doing a one-woman and a one-man show with me and Rob Boone," says McMahon, "but as the time approaches I'm getting a little bit nervous about it. It's a challenging show because of who Sophie was, and it's also challenging vocally. It's not that she had a tremendous range in her voice, but where the songs sit in my own voice will be a little tricky. And for one person to engage and hold an audience for a couple of hours--Sophie never sang for a couple of hours. At most she would do maybe 30 minutes."
She may not have worked long hours, but Tucker, in McMahon's opinion, was "an amazing woman. She was so incredibly ambitious and driven to be a successful performer. She was also an interesting woman because her humor was self-effacing; she would never aim a joke at someone else. What she poked fun at was probably what she missed most: trying to have a good monogamous relationship that lasted."