Nancy And Beth: Cabaret Gone Crazy

The band fronted by actresses Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt combines live comedy with pop, blues, country, and plenty of jazz

Stephanie Hunt and Megan Mullally as Nancy And Beth at the Café Carlyle

At New York’s Café Carlyle in May, the “punk-vaudeville” band Nancy And Beth thought broadly. In addition to touching on jazz, country, soul, and gospel, the proceedings included choreographed dance moves and sidesplitting between-tune chitchat. But the scope of the performance was nearly outmatched by the star power onstage: Nancy And Beth—the group formed in 2012 and released a self-titled album last year—is fronted by the actresses Megan Mullally, 59, and Stephanie Hunt, 29, the former best known for her work as Karen Walker on Will & Grace. And as a bonus, the ensemble was introduced by Mullally’s husband, the actor Nick Offerman, a.k.a. Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson. Before one of their Carlyle sets, Mullally, Hunt, and Petra Haden—a daughter of jazz bass great Charlie Haden, Petra sings and plays violin in the group—sat down to discuss Mullally’s debut as a jazz singer, how improv comedy is like free jazz, and that time Hunt sang “Misty” at a funeral. —BRAD FARBERMAN

JazzTimes: In the show I saw the other night, we heard “Moanin’” and a song that Dinah Washington was associated with, “Harbor Lights.” So when did you all first get interested in jazz?

Megan Mullally: And “Fine Brown Frame,” that’s a jazz arrangement. It was Shirley Horn who was the inspiration, her recording of it. I saw her live once in L.A.

Stephanie Hunt: When did you see her?

Mullally: Long time ago. It was in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Yeah, it was cool. We like everything that’s good. So jazz will often fall under that umbrella.

Hunt: More often than not.

Can you talk about your favorite jazz singers or influences?

Mullally: Well, I love Louis Armstrong. That was probably my first big love in that world. Nina Simone falls into that category; she’s one of my all-time favorites. I don’t have every record of hers, ’cause she’s got a jillion records, but I have a lot—an inordinate number. There’s so many people.

Petra Haden: I love Ella Fitzgerald. She improvises these vocals like she’s a trumpet. She just goes all over the place. That’s just incredible to me.

Hunt: Yeah, she is like a horn.

Mullally: Yeah, and there’s something about Dinah Washington’s voice. … And early, early Aretha. Before they made her be like, you know, [sings] “What you want!” all the time. She’s so amazing.

Hunt: I love Eartha Kitt. When I was a kid, she was one of the first voices that I remember asking what her name was, because it’s so distinct. And it seems almost humorous, but then when you listen to it when you’re older, it doesn’t seem as humorous.

Mullally: When you say Eartha Kitt, I think of Peggy Lee. Similar time and place. Peggy Lee used to do some cool shit.

How do you choose the songs?

Mullally: We do archive a lot of songs, and then we get together before the season starts and we listen to everything. And there’s a pretty immediate yes or no, but there are some maybes. And there have been some songs that I’ve fully choreographed, that were very elaborate, that have not yet made their way into the show, for one reason or another. There was a song Ray Charles did, “It Makes No Difference Now.” The love object that we’re trying to resist is our chairs. And so we do this whole thing where we keep trying not to sit, but he keeps pulling us in. And then at one point we lift him up over our heads and, like, bring him down. It was quite a feat.

Your between-song banter and antics—to me that was some real improvising.

Mullally: That’s some dangerous soloing right there.

I really thought that. It’s like free jazz.

Mullally: It is. It’s like freeform fusion jazz with an element of risk. It’s different every night, because we don’t plan it out.

And are you big soul fans? I keep thinking about the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway version of “For All We Know” you performed.

Hunt: My first band was a soul band. When I was 18, I was a backup singer in a soul band.

Mullally: Wait a minute. I’m gonna get some props for this. My first band was a jazz trio. In college, I was asked to sing with a jazz trio. It was a pre-existing jazz trio, and they were like, “Can you sing jazz?” I was like, “I don’t know. What is it?” And they played some stuff, and I sang it, and they were like, “Yeah, you can sing jazz.” And so we played in this place that was underneath an L stop; it was called the Third Rail, in Chicago. We had a regular gig there. I just now remembered that. That was my first band that I probably got paid to sing with.

Do you remember what songs you would do? Were they all standards?

Mullally: Yeah, standards. And we did a couple of blues songs also. I remember we did “Stormy Monday.” But the jazz songs, I don’t remember exactly which ones we did.

I think that’s good. Is there anything I’m missing?

Hunt: I wanna say one thing, though. I don’t know why I wanna say it, but I do: that I sang “Misty” at my grandma’s funeral.

Mullally: [sings] “Look at me…” That’s a weird song to sing at a funeral—I’m just gonna come right out and say it. [sings] “I’m as happy as a kitten up a tree.” Right? Something “as a kitten up a tree”?

Hunt: “Helpless.” It was terrible, because she told me since I was 12 years old that I had to sing that at her funeral. And it was always like, “What’s ‘Misty’?” And I always listened to it, and I was like, “Hmm . . .” And she’d always make my dad play it. But then when she did die, I was like, “Oh no, I have to learn ‘Misty.’” [Sings while pretending to cry] “I’m as helpless…” But I was misty. Anyway. That was intense.