If you asked musical duo Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt to lock their band Nancy and Beth’s theatrical style into a genre they’d have as hard a time as any. “It’s like Pilates class gone wild,” Mullally offers about their tight and surprisingly acrobatic choreography on stage. And it is. Experiencing a Nancy and Beth show is as much about admiring physical feats as it is appreciating the music. The pair will flip over chairs while singing one minute and shimmy into a coordinated cane number the next.
“I’ve learned from the best,” Hunt says of their choreographic process. “Megan has some of the best body control in the world in my opinion.”
Fans who know Mullally from her role as Karen in Will and Grace might be a touch surprised to learn that she does all the choreography for Nancy and Beth herself, but her background includes years in a ballet company and many roles in Broadway musicals. “My favourite compliment that we got recently,” Mullally says, “is from when a big Broadway guy came to see us play and he said I have the best core in the business. I was so excited about that.”
Admirable cores aside, the pair are musically in sync, both on stage and off. Meeting on the set of indie flick Somebody Up There Likes Me in 2012, Hunt and Mullally would sing together for fun with Hunt’s ukulele between takes. “We instantly realised that there was something to the ease of our voices together and that that was something to be continued,” Hunt recalls.
Growing up in a huge musical family in Austin, Texas, Hunt has been playing instruments and performing since childhood. Similar to the Nancy and Beth approach to tunes, Hunt’s early bands spanned genres and eras; she’s performed everything from Motown to country.
Mullally, on the other hand, attributes her childhood interest in singing to, “playing my mum and dad’s old Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland records… because apparently my parents were a gay male couple.”
The Nancy and Beth songbook shows glimmers of Hunt and Mullally’s eclectic interests and is conjured from the ethereal depths of their friendship connection.
“It’s an intangible thing, where Stephanie and I sit bolt upright when we hear a song and we’ll stare in each others eyes and just know. We know that it’s right,” Mullally says. That’s how they select Nancy and Beth covers that range from the hits of 1940s Americana to Rufus Wainwright. Their only unifying theme musically is that a track has to make it to their shared “freak out list”.
“It’s kind of like when you’re two little girls and you know you’ve made the perfect mud pie,” says Mullally of their shared enthusiasm for certain songs and how they end up structuring them for the stage. They’re not a comedy band by any means, but the way the songs are arranged certainly contains a knowing wit. Nancy and Beth the band at times strips songs of their melodic maudlin and presents them as deadpan automations. An effect that, intentional or not, is very funny. And very singular to Mullally and Hunt’s shared approach to song appreciation.
There is another, subconcious theme that connects Nancy and Beth covers like ‘If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It’ ( a ‘30s proto-feminist song made famous by R’n’B legend Ruth Brown) and a subversion of the comically sexist ‘I Don’t Love Her’ by Gucci Mane.
“We realised recently that we don’t really pick ‘victim songs’... We innately don’t gravitate towards those,” Mullally says. “Yeah, we were both kind of shocked. Like, wow! There’s no heartbreak,” Hunt adds.
“I hate the expression ‘finish each others’ sentences’ but that does actually happen,” Mullally says of their kinship. Their close relationship to each other totally informs the concept of Nancy and Beth as an act. On stage their voices meld into one and they always appear in matching outfits. A moveable, pant-suited sentence spoken in unison.
The costumes are consciously unsexy too, the pair note. They gravitated towards pant suits and tracksuits so their performance could never be read as sexualised. “We got a great compliment from a reviewer when we were last touring; she said that our costumes were objectification-proof,” Mullally laughs.
The effect of these “twinning”, harmonising friends on stage is something that, again, defies definition. You can watch Nancy and Beth videos on YouTube and think you’ve figured it out, there are elements of winking cabaret and an unsettling earnestness woven into their micro Parkour, but even Mullally and Hunt don’t know where their style comes from. They do know they’re having musically-fulfilling fun, and after six years of performing together they’re still building idiosyncratic choreography from dreams.
Much like “finishing each others’ sentences”, the cliché “it has to be seen to be believed” applies. Nancy and Beth are ready to surprise and delight Australian audiences this winter, and you can see them perform at the Sydney Opera House in two performances on Sunday June 16.
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