Actress-singer-dancer Megan Mullally is a designing woman in the best sense of the term. For eight seasons (1998 to 2006), she delighted sitcom buffs as the tippling, tough-talking, self-absorbed socialite Karen Walker on “Will & Grace,” who served as the less-than-industrious executive assistant to interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing).
Karen was the “Ab Fab” type who would buck up an angst-filled Grace with a snappy line like “Oh, woulda, coulda, shoulda, Prada.”
Karen was more interested in hanging with their friend Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes), a flamboyantly gay actor, and sparring verbally with Grace’s soulmate, gay attorney Will Truman (Eric McCormack). So timely and funny was the series in its first run that it returned to NBC in 2017, with Karen as brazen as ever (although she now supposedly finds rich clients for Grace’s business).
If you only know Mullally from that acclaimed, scene-stealing role, however, then you don’t know the half of it. In addition to being a comedic actress with flawless timing (and a knack for the dramatic), she is a chanteuse with the ability to belt listeners into next week. Mullally, who won raves for her performance in the Broadway revival of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” as well as debuting the role of Elizabeth in the “Young Frankenstein” musical, also has a more experimental harmonious side as she demonstrates with co-lead vocalist Stephanie Hunt in their band Nancy And Beth. With an eponymous debut album already under its belt and a sophomore full-length one scheduled for release in 2020, Nancy And Beth is taking to the road for a concert tour that includes a stop at The Ridgefield Playhouse on May 10 and Café Carlyle in The Carlyle in Manhattan May 14 through 25, before jetting off to Australia in June. I had the pleasure of speaking to Megan and Stephanie about the band, the music and more.
For the uninitiated, I’d like to begin by asking you both to say a few words about the genesis of the band name Nancy And Beth — with a capital “A.”
Megan Mullally: “Oh, my God. People can’t get over their emotional distress over the capitalized ‘A.’”
Stephanie Hunt: (laughs)
MM: “They can’t calm themselves. Let me explain the capitalized ‘A.’ First of all, it’s because we like it. Second of all, we’re Stephanie and Megan. But this is a band. We didn’t want people to think it was just two people who were just going to stand there. It’s a band. So, we capitalized it. But I’m telling you, the furor that that has caused. People have refused, publications have refused, to print that capital A, and I’m like, “But you put a dollar sign in Ke$ha! Why can’t you use a capital ‘A?’ I don’t get it.”
On my honor, I will make sure to inform my editor that the A is capitalized.
MM: “You are a dreamboat.”
Thank you! So, where did the name actually come from?
SH: “I would say it came from the ethers and solidified a telepathic communication that Megan and I have together. All of this was done over email. It was in a long list of names that we were considering. We had a dinner and we talked over a long list of names. Then Megan sent me a bunch of those in an email, and she included Nancy And Beth somewhere in the middle. As soon as I saw Nancy And Beth, I emailed back, “Nancy And Beth, that’s the best one.” She had thought that Nancy And Beth was the best one, too. We both immediately understood the comedic undertones and existential hankerings and it works perfectly.”
Among the “dollfaces,” as the band is referred to in the liner notes, is Joe Berardi, who played with you, Megan, in the Supreme Music Program. Is Nancy And Beth in any way an outgrowth of SMP?
MM: “Only in the sense that I wanted to have a musical concern going again. But it really is because of Stephanie. I don’t think I would have set out to start a band again, because Supreme Music Program never really broke up. We could have continued playing. But then I met Stephanie and it turned into this whole other thing.”
MM: To put it mildly.
What was involved in the process of recruiting the rest of the band members, including the incredible Petra Haden, for Nancy And Beth?
SH: “I’m from Austin, Texas. Megan and I met doing a movie — ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ (from 2012) — and Kim, a good friend of ours who worked on the movie, suggested that we reach out to Andrew Pressman, the bass player. We were doing recordings here in Austin. The band started with just Megan and I singing with a ukulele. We were thinking maybe we could have a guitar player and bass player as our vision for the band was expanding and we were one-upping ourselves on what we could do. We did some recording in Austin with Andrew and Datri (Bean).”
MM: “That was totally random. Stephanie called a friend of hers who knew Andrew and Andrew knew Datri. It was a good piece of synchronicity.”
SH: “It was all kismet. We have all been on the same page (since that time).”
MM: “Petra came about because I think Stephanie and I wanted to do the Joni Mitchell song ‘Blue’ in three-part harmony. We wanted to do that song, but you can’t make it any better than Joni Mitchell. We thought, what if we tried to do it exactly, all the way down to the big, wide vibratos, but in three-part? I’d met Petra from around L.A. But I didn’t know how freaking unbelievable she is, this weird genius. And I mean weird in the best possible way. I knew her records where she does everything (the instrumentation) with her voice.”
Right, such as “Petra Goes to the Movies”?
MM: “Yes. I knew about that and that’s how I knew she was great at harmonies. But Stephanie is also a harmony savant and I’m a harmony dumbo. At a certain point, she would just start busting out a (vocalized) horn part or something. We were like, ‘This is great.’ We didn’t have a horn section, although Datri plays trumpet, so I guess we do have a horn section now.”
Choreography plays a considerable role when it comes to Nancy And Beth. Who comes up with the dance steps?
SH: “Megan. She’s a choreography savant.”
MM: “We all have our specialties. That started because I was a ballet dancer and then I did a lot of musical theater. I was always doing that, even when I was a little kid. I would shut myself in my room and come up with dramatic moves and perfect them and make my mom come in and watch. For Nancy And Beth, that’s our stock in trade. It’s like two little girls playing. I was an only child. But if I’d had an imaginary friend growing to dance with, it would have been Stephanie.”
That’s quite a compliment, right?
SH: “Yes, that’s amazing.”
MM: “She’s the imaginary friend I always wanted. Except she’s real. Stephanie has a very magical quality where I promise you, there’s a very good chance that she could actually be imaginary.”
As the anniversary of the release of the eponymous Nancy And Beth debut album approaches, what has the experience been like for each of you?
MM: “The first record came out great. The second record, which comes out in 2020, is so good. We’re so excited about it.”
SH: “There’s a horn section it.”
MM: “We got Quincy Jones’ horn arranger to do some arrangements for about four or five of the tracks. All of the tracks sound totally different from each other. We do so many different genres and eras. This will be our third year in a row of touring. I look forward to it so much. This year we get to go to Australia and all around the states. It’s going to be cool.”
SH: “Every year it changes. Our show evolves as we both evolve as human beings. We let that affect whatever the show is. We don’t even know what it’s going to be, which is one of my favorite parts about this band. It’s a very stream-of-consciousness experience onstage.”
On the other hand, putting together an album is more deliberate. For example, “Please, Mr. Jailer,” which people might recognize from the John Waters movie “Cry Baby,” is just one of the fascinating cover song choices on the album. Why was that song chosen?
MM: “First of all, we didn’t know it was from ‘Cry Baby.’ We knew the Wynona Carr version of it from the ’50s. After we made the record, somebody said, ‘I love that song. From ‘Cry Baby,’ right?’ I was like, ‘Wait. What?’ If I had known it was from ‘Cry Baby,’ I might not have wanted to do it. I like John Waters, but, then I watched the clip on YouTube and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ But the Wynona Carr version is amazing. Stephanie has an amazing Library of Congress-sized volume of music in her brain. She knows every song from the ’40s through the ’60s. You can’t stump her.”
In keeping with the retro vibe, Nancy And Beth covers Lattie Moore’s rockabilly number “100,000 Women Can’t Be Wrong.” Stephanie, is that song an example of the music library in your head?
SH: “That one I think was a Shazam (music identifying app). I was in a record store and it was playing and I Shazammed it. Some of it we already knew and sometimes there’s stuff that if it’s even remotely a candidate, we’ll write it down. Neither of us knew the Gucci Mane song ‘I Don’t Love Her.’ We were Googling something else.”
MM: ‘Someone had told us about this song ‘Gucci Gucci Prada Prada’ (by Kreayshawn).
SH: “We Googled that and this is how the ethers come into play.”
MM: “Gucci Mane came up. We thought the name ‘I Don’t Love Her’ was intriguing. We listened to it, and we were like, ‘Oh, this is a keeper.’”
That was a daring choice. Of all the songs in Rufus Wainwright’s canon, why was “Vibrate” selected?
MM: “That was one that I knew of. I have a couple of his records and I’ve always liked that song. The way we choreographed it is kind of witty. I come up with the steps and then Stephanie remembers them. That’s how it works.”
SH: “I also knew about that one before. But it also hinted that it could use some movement in it, with the ‘vibrate’ lyrics, even though we mostly stand still. We do subtle, cool choreography.”
Megan’s character Karen sang “The Man That Got Away” on a recent episode of “Will & Grace.” Is there any chance that we might ever hear a Nancy And Beth song incorporated into an episode of the show?
MM: “I wish. I feel like the chances are relatively slim, but that would be amazing. But wait, you gave me an idea. Stephanie and I could do ‘The Man That Got Away’ in harmony. One genre of music that we’ve never done is a torch song. Instinctively we don’t do victim songs. I asked Stephanie a few months ago, ‘Do you realize that we’ve never done a ‘my man done me wrong song?’ We don’t pick those. Unfortunately, because it’s probably the all-time greatest torch song, ‘The Man That Got Away’ is a victim song. We want to do a little of everything, so we could do it.”
Megan, you recently hosted the SAG Awards and got high marks for the Alexander McQueen gown you wore. In terms of career achievements, what do both of those things mean to you?
MM:“I’ve worn a lot of Alexander McQueen dresses. I always buy my own clothes. I love Alexander McQueen, but I just have to wear whatever looks good on me. That’s where that begins and ends. Hosting the SAG Awards was amazing. Back in the day, during ‘Will & Grace,’ we were at the SAG Awards quite a bit. I was lucky enough to win a few SAG Awards. It’s probably my favorite awards show because it’s actors sitting at the tables, your cast and a lot of your buddies. Hosting it was really cool. I tried to have good jokes and look cute.’”
You definitely succeeded.
Nancy And Beth performs at The Ridgefield Playhouse on May 10. For more, visit ridgefieldplayhouse.org. Nancy And Beth also performs at Café Carlyle at The Carlyle in Manhattan May 14 through 25. For more, visit cafecarlylenewyork.com.