Cabaret

Interview with
Sharon McNight

by Jonathan Frank

Sharon McNight, who garnered a Tony Award nomination and a Theater World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut for her portrayal of The Diva in Starmites, is, for me, quintessentially cabaret. While her 'take no prisoners, there are no sacred cows' attitude and brassy belt of a voice are not necessarily in the 'traditional' cabaret mold, she is decidedly what cabaret is all about: truthful connection with the songs and the audience. She has received great acclaim for her shows, which include a one-woman musical based on Sophie Tucker called Red Hot Mama, Songs to Offend Almost Everyone, and most recently, Ladies, Compose Yourselves!, a tribute to female songwriters that she is bringing back to New York this month.

JF:Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Sharon. I really enjoyed Ladies, Compose Yourselves! when I saw it last fall and can't wait to see it again. Especially since it will also feature songs from your new CD, Offensive, Too!

Sharon: Thank you.

JF:I've enjoyed both of your Offensive CDs. What made you decide to release a follow-up album to Songs to Offend Almost Everyone?

SM: I kept adding songs to the show, Songs to Offend Almost Everyone, throughout the run as the show was a work-in-progress. The first album based on the show was very well received but as the show developed, people would come up to me after a show and ask if such-and-such a song was on the CD. When I answered "no," they would get this crestfallen look on their faces and say, "oh." So I thought I would make another CD that contained all the songs that they wanted to hear so they would have no excuses not to buy an album from me at shows.

JF: How do you choose your material? Everything seems to be tailored especially for your performance style.

SM: I listen to a lot of stuff and have a lot of friends who are composers and seem to have one weird, kinky little song in their trunks that would be just perfect for me. I'm very choosy, though and I'm very good at being able to tell if a song is 'me' or not. I like to sing stuff that's new and that other people have not performed because I don't think we go anywhere by constantly recycling the same songs. There are people who are wonderful at being performers/historians, but I would rather be a musician.

Blow Me - Sharon McNight
Song Clip Click for
"Blow Me"
by Sharon McNight
In RealAudio

JF: You mentioned last time you were here about the possibility of Songs to Offend Almost Everyone getting a run Off-Broadway.

SM: Yes; we're in the money raising phase right now. We did five shows at the Lucille Lortel Theater last year as part of their summer season, which went over very well. I did the show during Gay Pride weekend and we did the show five times in three days with a band. I wish we had had time to do more, but I basically only had time to come into town, rehearse the band, bing-bang, do the shows, and leave. It did very well, even without much publicity. A friend told me, "Gee! That was the most refreshing time I've had in the theater in a long time. I'd invest money in that!" And I said, "Oh really???" So now I'm trying to organize an Off-Broadway run.

JF: There are a couple of songs in Songs to Offend Almost Everyone from the infamous Durwood Douché. I've heard the name bandied about but have never heard who he really was or what the story is behind the songs.

SM: I happen to know 'Durwood Douché.' His real name is Dick Shreve and he was the pianist for Andy Williams for twenty years. The songs basically came about as something to do in the off-time during shows and tours; one can only hear "Moon River" so many times before going a bit mad. He started writing these naughty songs and they would get arranged and played on the road by all these musicians looking for creative ways to spend their off time.

JF: What I love is that the songs are all written, and sometimes even recorded, in styles associated with very specific performers. "Merrilou" (aka: "When I'm Sitting On Your Face") is such a great Marlene Dietrich number that one wonders if she ever sang it.

SM: No, no, no ... the originals never sang them.

JF: Have you have come across a song so offensive that even you won't sing it?

SM: I came across a couple while doing research ... such as a song written in 1898 called "The Ku Klux Klan's Gonna Getcha If You Don't Watch Out." Mainly, though, songs would offend me as a musician ... the melodies would be terrible, for instance. I heard some songs on a Doctor Demento album about dead puppies that I found bothersome, but music rarely offends me ... unlike social and political events.

JF: When I Googled your name, I came across a listing that linked you to a porno movie, Autobiography of a Flea, that starred John Holmes. Were you involved in that?

SM: Uh-huh!

JF: I thought that chances were good ...

SM: There aren't that many Sharon McNights around. In 1976, I was working as a secretary for these two guys who wanted to do a porno movie, but they didn't know a great deal about France in 1810. As I did, because I have a Masters Degree in theater after all, they asked me to direct it. I had never been on a movie set, but I knew my way around a script because I had written a lot of children's plays. It opened in New York right after Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door came out. It did very well, as it was a great deal more femininely oriented than most of the movies of the time had been. It was pretty porn; it looked like Barry Lyndon.

JF: I'm more than a little intrigued; I may have to track down a copy! And to go from writing children's theater to a porno movie about a flea living in a girl's pubic hair ...

You are probably best known to the folks here on Talkin' Broadway for your Tony nominated portrayal of The Diva in Starmites. Why aren't you on the cast album, such as it is?

SM: Brian Lane Green and I are both Californians and according to the composer, they didn't have enough money to fly the two of us in. The twin ironies are that Brian was living in New York City at the time and I had already recorded "Hard to be Diva" on my CD, In the Meantime, before the cast album was ever recorded.

JF: Did you enjoy doing Starmites?

SM: Oh, yes! It was interesting working with actors again. Most of the actors I come into contact with are not really business people and have never produced themselves like cabaret performers do. We know what the nut is, how to hire musicians, how much they cost, etc. And it was interesting to let someone else take care of that aspect. And it was great doing eight shows a week again.

JF: You had done Nunsense right before that.

SM: Right, in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where I won the Critics Circle Award for the Best Performance from a Female in a Musical.

Starmites was also interesting because we were opening a new theater on Broadway and there was all this controversy over us being independent as opposed to being a part of one of giant theater machines in the city. Being a cabaret outlaw myself, I felt right at home.

JF: That's as good a description of you as any.

SM: Yup! And since I sing country that makes me the Waylon Jennings of cabaret!

JF: I have to admit that I had to laugh when I read that you played Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly.

SM: Really???

JF: Well, it seems like such an unlikely pairing of part and actress ... You seem more the type to tell Mrs. Malloy to screw the guys since they are losers, and that you girls should go out and knock back a few beers.

SM: I've actually done the part twice, and even won an award doing so. It brings out the old dancing days in me, and singing the part an octave higher than Carol Channing is very interesting as well! I wouldn't mind doing it again, in fact.

JF: It was evil of me pigeonholing you. But after listening to you sing songs like "Mascochism Tango," it makes for an interesting shift in thought.

SM: Well, she's an Irish girl, like myself, who just happened to marry a Jewish fella!

JF: How long did you work on your Sophie Tucker show, Red Hot Mama?

SM: I read her book in 1981 and started collecting songs here and there after that. I was working on a Mae West project that didn't pan out so I decided to tackle Sophie, since my weight was high enough for me to play her. ASCAP used to present showcases on Sundays at Rainbow and Stars so I put together a set of about thirteen or fourteen songs, put in some of her jokes in between the songs and went from there.

JF: You have been involved in AIDS benefits right from the start.

SM: Yes. I was part of the first AIDS benefit in San Francisco, which was held at the Davies Symphony. It also starred Debbie Reynolds, George Kirby, Morgana King and Sylvester. It was in 1982. It's been a long time ... too long. Should have been nipped in the bud, but when you don't have a government that is willing to jump in ...

JF: What are you going to be doing at The Duplex?

SM: The show at the Duplex is my Nightlife award-winning (blush, blush) Ladies, Compose Yourselves, which will also be celebrating the release of Offensive, Too!. I have six solo CDs and never once did I do a fanfare for them. Put your lips together, Satchmo, this is it!

JF: You'll also be at Town Hall on May 3rd as part of the Brooklyn to Hollywood show, where you will be performing with Tovah Feldshuh, Annie Golden and Alix Korey.

SM: Yes. I'll be doing some Mae West. I just love dragging out that gal ...(in flawless impersonation). Once you gat started talking and singing like her, you just can't talk 'regular.' The songs aren't the greatest and she takes liberties. Ohhh, but ain't that the way she lived her life? It makes me want to write a show about her. What a lady! What a dame!

JF: Are you working on any new shows?

SM: I'm working on a show called Betty, Betty, Bette.

JF: You are the only woman I have ever seen effectively do Bette Davis.

SM: (in flawless Bette mode) Thaaaank you.

JF: So it's Bette Davis, Betty Hutton and...

SM: Betty Grable. I do the hula and Grable was an old hula dancer ... and we were both born on the 18th of December. So it worked out. And I was called 'Legs' in high school ... although now I'm called 'Cellulite.'

JF: Were you born in Hawaii?

SM: No. I was born in Modesto, California.

JF: I was wondering, because you just mentioned you did the hula, and at your last show I remember hearing you talking about 'the language of the hands.'

SM: I took ballet, tap, and hula for six years in Modesto. I am a native California girl. Most people think I live in San Francisco, but I just sublet a place there: I'm a San Francisco girl who lives in Hollywood. When I did Starmites! and Red Hot Mama I sublet a place here, but most of my stuff lives in California.

JF: Is there a timeline for Betty, Betty, Bette?

SM: No. I'm in the process of putting it together. It will probably end up being ninety minutes and two acts in length, because doing three women in one hour is totally insane, but it's still in development. There are so many songs to choose from Betty Hutton and Betty Grable, and I have to be in tip-top shape to do Betty Hutton and be that manic.

JF: I saw you do a Betty Hutton number at the last Cabaret Convention in San Francisco.

SM: Yeah, I did "Square in Social Circles" and the Betty Grable song, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows." Donald Smith had asked me to do my seven minute version of The Wizard of Oz, but I had just had a foot operation so wasn't able to jump up and down like the number requires. But I ended up having to do even more jumping and running around doing Betty Hutton, all the while sweating like a whore in church, so I'm not sure it was an inspired idea.

JF: 'Seven Minute Wizard of Oz?'

SM: When I just started out, I was working at a club called Fanny's in the Castro district. Glen Kelly, who did the music arrangements for The Producers, was playing the piano and when somebody mentioned Glinda the Good to him, I broke into "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" He started playing "Come out, come out wherever you are" and I started singing along. People were looking at me like I was weird ... and rightfully so! Glen came along with me to Hawaii for my first road trip, which lasted six weeks. I brought along a copy of The Wizard of Oz and we came up with a seven-minute version of the scene where Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, with me doing all the voices.

JF: I would so love to hear that!

SM: It's on the video Fabulous Ladies of New York Cabaret and you can order it through www.broadwaybeat.com.

JF: Well, that title certainly applies to you. Have a wonderful run this month!

SM: Thank you!

Sharon McNight will be appearing at The Duplex (7th Ave & Christopher St.) April 17, 19, 24 (9:00pm), 26 (7:00pm), and May 1 (9:00pm), and on May 3 she will participate in the Town Hall show Brooklyn to Hollywood.


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