Dr. Larry Myers Inquires of saucy songstress Sharon McNight…..I asked Sharon to describe her June activities, which begin right on Thursday, June 1 as she returns to The Duplex in Greenwich Village then, with June 5, 8, and 18 the additional dates. Her musical director will be Ian Herman (recently seen accompanying the divine Arlene Wolff). On June 9 and 10 Miss McNight takes a side trip to do her celebrated Songs to Offend Almost Everyone act at The Celebrity Room at Dino’s Backstage, Glenside PA as part of her MA and PA tour — not Ma and Pa Kettle, but the states abbreviated as MA (Massachusetts) and PA (Pennsylvania). [See full schedule at the bottom.]
When I asked her describe the new New York show, she replied, “This current show is Soup to Nuts. My repertoire has always been eclectic, defying the norm, taking on a challenge. A critic once defined me as ‘authentic.’ I liked that. I try to please myself first by picking songs that I like.” One of her signature pieces is recreating memorable moments from the classic film The Wizard of Oz in which she plays all the characters in the “Munchkinland” sequence. She told me it began “by accident because it was my Master’s thesis, I knew some of the dialogue, and Glen Kelly had played the score. I may reprise it at the four shows I’m doing at The Duplex this June.” Another of her most requested pieces is Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days,” which has become her “theme song.” She explains, “I know if a song will work instantly if I cry on first hearing it.” That’s how she herself reacted when she first considered it. “Now the audience cries. I’ve been doing that song since 1978. People remember being moved or laughing. I like to make people laugh and I’ve been blessed with that ability. I’ll do just about anything for a laugh.”
“Anything?!?” I question in my best Dr. Myers Inquires manner.
“I’ll get back to you on where the line is drawn!” she quipped.
Our talk turned more serious when I interviewed her about her political and social sides, which we’d begun discussing in earnest when we encountered each other after the MAC Awards in June, at the post-event party at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. I asked: “Sharon, since you were in the heart of AIDS work, right from the beginning in San Francisco, I’d like to discuss your musical work in terms of your politics.”
“This is a difficult one for me,” she confessed. “I have to recall the sexual freedom, gay rights and health care issues from the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s. This involves tears and frustration and despair and the fight to overcome it.”
“What involved you so deeply in this issue?” I wondered.
“I was there in San Francisco for the liberation parties, so I had to stay for the repercussions. It was a responsibility I accepted. I couldn’t stand by and watch. I’m a hippie; we ‘question authority.’ I asked her to describe what went on, in some detail. And she did: “In the beginning stages of the health crisis, there was so much speculation of the cause —- airborne, spit, kissing, poppers. Fear was everywhere. If you lost weight, people were suspicious. Relationships and friendships ended instantly. Dr. Cliff Morrison brought together a group of doctors and nurses who volunteered to start the first AIDS ward in America. The first major acknowledgment of the issue was in June of 1983 at a sold-out fundraiser for the AIDS Foundation at Davies Hall emceed by Debbie Reynolds. Shirley MacLaine was the surprise guest, then there was impressionist George Kirby — just released from prison—, Morgana King, disco star Sylvester, and me. Months later it was revealed that some of the money was missing. I was beyond pissed off, so I organized my own little fundraiser at a club. One man paid $100 to hear me do The Wizard of Oz and the total for the evening was $1,100.00. The next night I went to the AIDS Ward 5B and did a show for the patients and presented the check to Cliff. The piano and the moving cost were donated. A bartender dressed like a WAC and served the patients. We had hors-d’oeuvres and got permission to serve mimosas to anyone who wanted one. This was the last party for so many of the men. And that was the beginning of that chapter.”
When I asked what the most terrible aspects were, she went on to recall, “There was no funding for AIDS care or research at this time. I once did the ‘lovely Carol Merrill’ bit at an auction in a dark bar on Market Street. There was no funding for this. People brought in things from their homes to sell to raise money. The President was Reagan, who ignored the undesirable elephant in the room. Incidentally, the auctioneer was the future Mayor of San Francisco, Assemblyman Willie Brown.”
I wanted to know if her time in San Francisco occasioned her to know Harvey Milk and how her involvement in gay rights began. “I was politically active way before this— in the ‘70s, the Nixon years. In 1978, a wackjob named John Briggs got enough signatures to place a proposition on the November ballot that would ban teachers who were gay from teaching in public schools – ‘No on 6’ was the watchword. That’s when I met Harvey Milk and had the pleasure of introducing Mayor Moscone at a benefit at the Castro Theatre. Three weeks later they would be dead.”
This led to some memories of activities during the early years in NYC where she met John Glines of The Glines, the gay-focused theatre company, and a founding trustee of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which grew out of Stamp Out AIDS. And soon the then-owner of The Duplex and Don’t Tell Mama, the late Erv Raible, welcomed volunteers in the piano bars. “Producer John Glines had an idea to raise money by creating a stamp that people could buy and affix to their letters that would give a visual reminder to the public – STAMP OUT AIDS, it said. So he went to Erv Raible for help with the sales. Thus ‘Divas for Dollars’ was created. John, his crew of handsome young men and a singer would descend on a piano bar, the singer would sing, do the money pitch, and the guys would sell the stamps. About five places a night would be visited. Erv told him there was only one woman he knew that could handle the maiden voyage.” Who? (I did not really have to ask.) “You guessed it. I was doing an Off-Broadway show at the time, but when the curtain went down . . . . I did it for six nights a week for three weeks. I know ‘cause I found an article by Bob Harrington in Backstage.”
The mention of her work being in the press made me curious about other places where her work related to AIDS might be documented. And she reminisced, “Here’s what I recall vividly. In 1987, I had taken two weeks off from Nunsense in San Francisco to go perform in Paris with Erv Raible and a group of singers and their pianists. I am sitting in the basement of a 200-year-old theatre and [the late musical director/songwriter] Dick Gallagher tells me, ‘You’re in this book.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right’ —- or probably something a little more salty. He started to read from a rather thick hardcover book. He was describing the show I did in Ward 5B in 1983. The book was And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts. It brought back a memory of the most vivid, difficult performance I have ever done.”
Changing the subject, I wanted to know what she learned by being a teacher at Yale’s Cabaret Symposium when she taught with Faith Prince and others. Her reply was succinct: “I teach what I sing and I sing what I teach. I have a couple of theories written in stone.
You can’t hold a note unless you ‘earned’ it. This is not about you; it’s about them out there.
And if you can’t do your act in the headlights of a ‘56 Chevy, you don’t belong in show business.”
So, as we turn back to her other memories of years in show business, where she most certainly belongs, she offered one more bit from her memory lane: “Three gay couples had their first dates at one of my shows, and they have been together for over 30 years. Another couple spent their honeymoon at my show at the River [Guerneville]. Actually two of those people have been on Broadway. Guess I should have been a matchmaker.”
[Editor’s Note: Hmmmm—Maybe we need her as the next diva to grace the title role of the matchmaker in Hello, Dolly!]
SHARON McNIGHT IN JUNE
June 1, 8, 15 (Thursdays) and 18 (Sunday) at 7:00 at the Duplex – Soup to Nuts visit http://www.theduplex.com/site/calendar $20 Ticket in Advance & a 2 Drink Minimum in the Cabaret Theatre $25 Ticket at the Door, plus a service fee. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre/ 61 Christopher St. (Corner of 7th Ave.) Greenwich Village, Manhattan
June 9 and 10 (Friday & Saturday) The Celebrity Room at Dino’s Backstage, Glenside PA—–Songs to Offend Almost Everyone
June 23 (Saturday) The RRazz Room at the Clarion Hotel, New Hope PA Soup to Nuts
June 30 & July 1 (Friday & Saturday) Sage (formerly the Pilgrim House) in P-Town, MA —Songs to Offend Almost Everyone