When you interview New York cabaret star Nellie McKay, you seldom get straight answers. In fact, you often end up becoming a straight man for her shtick.
For example, we were talking about the new show that she’s bringing to the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis this week, “A Girl Named Bill.” I asked how she prepared to portray Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who lived as a man and had several wives but was discovered to be a woman when he died in 1989 in Spokane.
“I laced myself up like Billy did to make herself appear male,” McKay said. “I couldn’t last a night. It’s not good for circulation.”
She was alluding to how Tipton, who was an active jazz bandleader from the 1940s to the 1970s, bandaged his breasts, claiming he’d hurt his ribs in an auto accident.
McKay also did some academic and musical research, studying pianist Teddy Wilson, one of Tipton’s chief influences. She also developed impressions of Jimmy Durante and Liberace because that’s what Tipton did.
“He went by Lee,” McKay said of Liberace. “But I like to call him Libby.”
McKay discovered Tipton via the book “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton,” which McKay’s mother, actress/manager Robin Pappas, found in a thrift shop many years ago. “It was so long ago,” McKay, 34, said, “before Salvation Army was calling itself the Family Store.”
Tipton’s life was an act
The 1998 book was written by Stanford University professor Diane Middlebrook, who also wrote a biography of poet Anne Sexton. Tipton had five wives (or women who took his last name anyway) and three adopted sons; he served as a Boy Scout leader and a booking agent after retiring from performing. Only two female cousins who grew up with Tipton in Kansas City, Mo., knew of the gender flip that allowed Tipton to work full time as a jazz musician.
“This was not a pastiche for Billy. He committed his whole life to this,” McKay said. “If you can live a life such as this, it’s better than being onstage.”
In 2014, McKay staged “A Girl Named Bill” in New York City to positive reviews.
She wrote a few songs, such as “I’m in the Luckiest Mood,” and plays lots of blues and jazz obscurities from Tipton’s repertoire, including “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man” from “My Fair Lady.”
McKay resurrects plenty of jokes from Tipton’s act, but some sound like they could have come straight from McKay’s corny funny bone. Such as naming the various sexes — “male, female and insects.”
However, the impulsive singer/pianist/ukulele player doesn’t inject her own personality into “A Girl Named Bill.”
“It’s all Billy,” McKay said.
Respect for Midwest
Touring for the first time with “A Girl Named Bill,” the prodigiously talented New Yorker is bringing the show to Minneapolis because she “respects the Midwest” after spending six months there stumping for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. She praised the “forward-thinking” people she met in Eau Claire, Hudson and Hibbing.
McKay has acted on Broadway (“Three Penny Opera”), appeared regularly on “A Prairie Home Companion” in the Garrison Keillor days, recorded divergent albums (ranging from brilliant originals to a Doris Day tribute) and performed regularly at the Dakota. McKay put together two previous cabaret musicals about compelling female figures — one based on “Silent Spring” author and environmentalist Rachel Carson and the other on murderer Barbara Graham, whose life was the subject of the 1958 movie “I Want to Live.”
“I’d love to do the three shows in rep,” McKay said. “They’re all set in the ’50s. It was such a time.”
Coming across like the Robin Williams of cabaret, McKay is known for a hyperactive mind that has too many ideas — and too many snarky political comments — to be contained.
Since many of her responses to my questions ended up with off-point answers about the corporatization of government or the legalization of marijuana, I asked if she’d consider running for office.
“I’d get crucified,” said the outspoken progressive and animal-rights activist. “Part of me would like to. We need ranked voting. I’ve got to talk to people about how to do it. I should talk to people in Minnesota because, as usual, you’re leading the way. Realistically, change comes from small towns; it doesn’t come from big cities.”
Finally, a straight answer.