To say Sharon McKnight is unflappable is an understatement. On the afternoon I phoned her for this interview, she was cleaning up the mess from a shooting in her Hollywood apartment complex.
“We have a nut job in the building across the way,” she explained non-chalantly. “I opened up the drapes and there’s a bullet hole staring at us.”
Several bullets pierced the walls of her bedroom and closet, but fortunately, her costumes survived, she pointed out with a haughty laugh. She stopped short of comparing her life to a “SWAT” episode, even though a SWAT team was called in to deal with the situation.
It’s not surprising that most of McKnight’s musical heroes are also strong women. Over her career, she’s channeled Mae West, Ethel Merman and virtually every beloved buxom bombshell known to audiences.
“I have all these shows,” she said. “You know when I started in 1825, there were no titles, just your name. Then all of a sudden this name thing came along—‘Love Songs by Jerome Kern’ and all that bullshit. I named my first show ‘Songs to Offend Almost Everyone.’”
One of her most popular shows is “Gone, but Not Forgotten,” a salute to legendary ladies, including Patsy Cline, Madeline Kahn, Pearl Bailey and Judy Garland. That show is always evolving, “because people keep dying, you know,” McKnight said.
She just added Aretha Franklin and Carol Channing standards to that run sheet. She has an entire program devoted to the great performer and comedian Sophie Tucker called “Red Hot Mama,” and another, “Betty, Betty, Bette,” that salutes Betty Hutton, Betty Grabel and Bette Davis.
“I once had an audience in Hartfort that was so young, they didn’t know who Bette Davis was!” McKnight exclaimed. “That’s one of the few times when we didn’t ‘click.’”
On Saturday, March 2, the Tony nominee will perform at Island City Stage’s annual gala signature cabaret fundraiser at the Pier 66 Hotel and Marina in Fort Lauderdale, but she’s not planning one of her more risqué, campy programs, even though she acknowledges the largely older gay audience would probably eat it up.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the people in the dark,” she said about cabaret. “Thank you for the compensation, but I’m here to take you on a journey and it’s going to be a real journey. It’s live, it’s real."
She then quoted her friend Dick Gallagher, Patti Lupone’s former musical director, “Cabaret is about being yourself on purpose.”
Nothing gets under the veteran performer’s skin than to see contemporary “actors on Broadway” touring with rehearsed “cabaret” shows.
“It’s hard for people who have been in the business a long time and made it their business when these young people come along and learn 12 songs and call it a nightclub act,” McKnight complained. “I would have quit a long time ago, but I can’t stand mediocrity.”
She defiantly promised anything but mediocrity to the audiences at the Pier 66 event. If this call was any indicator, the performance will be memorable, for sure.
Sharon McKnight appears at the Island City Stage Signature Cabaret fundraiser on Saturday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pier 66 Hotel and Marina, 2301 S.E. 17thSt. in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $135 at IslandCityStage.org.