Megan Mullally Reveals the Future of Nancy And Beth, Cabaret's Strangest Show
Mullally and Stephanie Hunt lead the band they sometimes describe as "punk-vaudeville."
I doubt that there is much crossover between the fan bases of country crooner Tammy Wynette and rapper Gucci Mane, but Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt are undaunted and perform them both in the same set. They're crisscrossing the country (and soon the world) with their band Nancy And Beth (the conjunction is militantly capitalized), a genre-defying group that incorporates original choreography into every number. In my review of their show last year, I described Nancy And Beth as, "the kind of high-concept musical act that you'd normally have to ride the L train to witness."
That's why it's so surprising that their stop on the New York leg of their tour is the conservative Café Carlyle, longtime seat of Bobby Short and favored venue of serious cabaret artists like John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. Tucked away off the lobby of the storied Carlyle Hotel, the Café Carlyle is a place where the martinis are dry and the dinner-table wit is even drier. Woody Allen performs there with his jazz band every Monday, and gentlemen are not allowed into the dining room without a jacket.
"This is definitely the swankiest venue we've ever played," Mullally (best known for her performance as Karen Walker on NBC's Will & Grace) said as she sipped tea in the sitting room of her suite at the hotel. This is her second time playing the Carlyle with Nancy And Beth, but she was good friends with longtime resident Elaine Stritch. "I really want to know if there's anyone living in her apartment and if I can visit it," she said. Hopefully, she'll get that chance during the next week of their run.
This Story of the Week will explain what exactly makes Nancy And Beth the most experimental show to play the Carlyle in recent memory. Mullally and Hunt also share some exclusive details about the band's next project.
What is Nancy And Beth?
Nancy And Beth is a band made up of seven people, including Datri Bean (keyboards, vocals), Joe Berardi (drums), Petra Haden (strings, vocals), Roy Williams (guitar, vocals), and Andrew Pressman (bass, vocals). Mullally and Hunt front the group as lead singer-dancers. They insist that they are not playing characters named "Nancy" and "Beth," even though they seem to contradict this at times by referring to Nancy And Beth as a "buddy act." Channeling Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka, Mullally offered no assistance in our attempted taxonomy of Nancy And Beth when she said, "I would like to stress that it is a band. It's not a show. Although, it is a show. But it's a band."
Nancy And Beth's strange binitarianism is made even stranger by the lookalike costumes worn by Hunt and Mullally: matching pink Adidas tracksuits topped by double-bun hairdos and chunky glasses (the rest of the band members wear red jumpsuits). They open the show with P.M. Dawn's hip-hop dance track "Shake," which leads directly into a cover of the jaunty 1958 number "Everybody Loves a Lover" (first made popular by Doris Day). It's the cabaret equivalent of listening to an iPod on shuffle, and then devising a performance piece around the results.
How do they choose what songs to sing?
Mullally lays out two criteria: "It's got to have good lyrics and a good melody." That's it. Both Hunt and Mullally grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music (Hunt is from Austin, Texas, and Mullally hails from Oklahoma City). They have a taste for twangy country (like the George Jones tearjerker "He Stopped Loving Her Today"), but also Gospel (the Martin Luther King-inspired "Up to the Mountain") and old-timey showtunes (Irving Berlin's "My Walking Stick"). Mullally explained, "We're not consciously trying to find a crazy diverse range of songs from different genres and eras. Those are just the songs we like."
They're better at explaining what songs they wouldn't do: The top of the list right now is Britney Spears's "Oops!... I Did It Again." Mullally lamented, "There's nothing that we could do that would make it any worse than it already is." Yet despite that admission of looking for ways to present the song in all its cheesy Clinton-era glory, Mullally insisted, "We don't do camp."
This might come as a surprise to their audiences, who find themselves chuckling at the ridiculous costumes and absurd set lists, but it makes sense when you consider the backgrounds of the lead performers: Mullally and Hunt are actors (they met on the set of the 2012 film Somebody Up There Likes Me). They approach every song like actors, with an eye for the intention of the music and lyrics. "We know songs like 'If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It' are funny," Mullally said, adding, "but we're pretty deadly committed to the other songs and we don't think they're funny."
How do they come up with the choreography?
The dances come from that same sense of commitment. Mullally is a perfectionist when it comes to the choreography. "Megan can hold a pose for 20 minutes to see where a foot should be," Hunt shares. "Our choreography sessions are hilarious because they're so serious, but we can both step back and say, 'Oh my God, finger placement is holding up this whole thing.'"
Mullally's intense work ethic comes from her time as a ballet dancer and student at the School of American Ballet. Gesturing to her double-bun hairstyle, she recalled, "If you wore two buns, you'd get thrown out of class. I got thrown out once for wearing a spaghetti strap white leotard. Madame Danilova told me I looked like a hooker. In a thick Russian accent. I was 16." Such experiences never really leave you, and while Nancy And Beth's choreography doesn't suggest the Ballets Russes, the obsession with posture and uniformity carries through.
Will Nancy And Beth ever perform original songs?
That's the next step. "We're thinking of calling our next record Nancy And Beth Sing the Songbook of Jim And Derek," Mullally revealed. She went on to explain, "Jim And Derek are a middle-aged folk duo of no particular note. They're pretty mediocre, but for some reason, Nancy And Beth — who we are not — are obsessed with them to the point that they've gone to innumerable Jim And Derek concerts, waited hopefully outside the stage door, never to meet their heroes." Mullally and Hunt intend to write an entire album for Jim And Derek, which Mullally anticipates will be, "Not very good."
As the plot thickens with the addition of Jim And Derek, fans will have several opportunities see Nancy And Beth. Their stint at the Café Carlyle lasts until May 25. Next month, the group embarks on a tour of Australia, where audiences (raised on a healthy diet of Chris Lilley and the Eurovision Song Contest) will almost certainly take to Nancy And Beth like koalas to eucalyptus.