Red Hot Yiddishe Mama
On Friday July 2nd, I had the pleasure of watching the New Repertory Theater of Watertown, Ma put on Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas. I'd recently discovered Sophie while watching Making Trouble, and fallen in love with her witty and larger than life personality.
I was pleased to see that the show celebrates Sophie Tucker’s Jewish identity. At the very beginning, the big-hipped, brassy voiced actress reassures the audience as she comes onstage that there’s no need to be afraid because she’s “just a nice Jewish girl from Hartford, Connecticut.” This is the first of many references to Sophie’s Jewishness. Although the strict Orthodox community where Tucker was brought up viewed her flamboyant career with suspicion, they embraced her with open arms when she came back to Hartford as a star. Sophie talked openly and loudly about issues that were taboo in her home community, particularly women’s sexuality. I can definitely see why jokes like “Why are Jewish divorces so expensive? Because they’re worth it!” caused discomfort in an Orthodox community!
Despite these tensions with the community she grew up in, Sophie keeps a photo on her glamorous dressing table of her family, and tells the audience about the little third-floor tenement room where she grew up. These memories are a prelude to “Yiddishe Momme,” one of Sophie’s signature numbers in which she nostalgically recalled how much her mother cared for her children, and what a difficult time her parents had trying to make it in America. The memories of her childhood are one of the most serious moments in what is for the most part a side-splittingly funny show, which makes them all the more poignant and important. I love that Sophie Tucker: Last of the Red Hot Mamas is more than just a one-woman musical comedy. It’s an amusing tale of Sophie’s antics and romantic encounters, and contains plenty of foot-tapping show tunes, but it’s also a story about immigration and loss and poverty. In short, it’s a story of Jewish life in America.