Here We Come a-What-ssailing?

We carol. We wassail. Well, we used to wassail; but, we still carol about wassailing. Why? And what is a wassail, anyway?

The Wassail Bowl by John Gilbert, 1860

The performing arts are such an integral part of the holiday season that we hardly even remark about how much this time of year we spend going to shows, singing with family, performing in church, singing in temple and holding community Kwaanza song and dance events. Singing, dancing and acting go hand-in-hand with this season.

One holiday performing art form that goes way back is caroling and its companion, wassailing. Interestingly, the whole shebang that we know as Christmas caroling started in medieval France and England with a court dance—the “carole.” The dancers would respond in a refrain to a song-leader’s verse, creating a call-and-response singing dance. Think “Deck the halls with boughs of holly”/”Fa la la la la …” and you get the picture. In time, dancing fell from the tradition, but roving bands of singers remained.

However, it’s worth noting that the whole shebang as history knows it started with the pagans dancing and singing around stone circles for the winter solstice, usually around Dec. 22nd-ish. These praise songs, also called “noels,” happened for the pagans for all the seasons, not just winter, although noels in winter survived with great notoriety.

As Christianity took hold of the Western world, especially in Italy, nativity plays started around the winter solstice and used songs to deliver part of the storyline. The idea was that the audience would sing along, and the popularity of the nativity play spread throughout Europe, birthing many of the carols we know today. By the Victorian era, celebrants took to the streets to sing carols in public

Enter, “Here We Come A-Wassailing!”

Among the leaves so green, folks needed a toast. Because let’s face it; if you’re out in the cold singing, there’s a good chance somebody’s packing a toddy. In Old Norse, this toast was ves heil, and passed through Middle English as waes haeil, both meaning “be healthy” to wish someone well before a drink. The phrase morphed into wassail, eventually settling into a verb meaning “reveling with booze” though the connotation of wassailing is somewhat more elegant than, say, a similar thing happening at Gasparilla. Or maybe not … some historians point to the enthusiastic wassailing of the 17th century that led British and American Puritans to ban carols and, well, celebrating Christmas at all. Obviously, that went over like a lead sleigh.

A king being presented with a cup of wine and the salute Was hail.

We get eggnog from early wassail, the noun form, meaning “a spiced yuletide beverage for celebrating Christmas in particular.” Another cool, weird morph from the early wassailing days is what we know of as the Christmas bonus and tipping our supers, mailperson, and other people who provide services to us throughout the year. Back in the wassailing heyday, the drinking carolers and others in the serving class carried clay boxes; the wealthy were expected to share their bounty during Christmastide and so deposited money into these boxes. Ergo, “Boxing Day” evolved in Canada on Dec. 26 (the giving of Christmas boxes of money and such to workers) and our current practice of the Christmas bonus.

Though wassailing with traditional wassail has become almost obsolete in our modern holiday traditions, drunken singing of carols is alive in well in many homes and neighborhoods throughout the land. Elsewhere, celebrants in more reverent and wholesome practices still participate in caroling though that formal practice is fading as well. It seems that as humans change the way we live, we adapt our caroling and wassailing with us.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too.
This blog goes on holiday next week
but we’re sending you
a Happy New Year,
We send you a Happy New Year!

Next Big Thing: Evan Tyrone Martin

The young Chicago-based singer-actor appears in the Jaeb Theater for his acclaimed holiday concert—and guess what? His mom lives in Tampa and will be at every show. If you want to be there, you better get tickets soon because they’re hotter than chestnuts in an open fire right now.

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The Straz Center often has artists at the cusp of breaking out in their careers, like the time we hosted Jon Batiste and Stay Human (who?) only months before they landed their gig as Stephen Colbert’s house band (oh, them!). We have another of those acts lined up for a Christmas show as part of our cabaret series—Evan Tyrone Martin, whose show An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas strikes a perfect holiday harmony of golden-age nostalgia and youthful earnestness.

We caught up with Evan on the phone just a few days before the show started its holiday tour, which lands in the Jaeb this Thursday for five performances through the weekend.

The show originated last year, playing to packed audiences in St. Louis. The success of the show encouraged the producers to put Evan on the road the subsequent holiday season, and here we are.

“This is the first opportunity that I’ve had to tour with something that is my own, that actually features me,” says Evan, whose extensive performance career in Chicago included everyone from Jesus to King Triton. “Producers Michael and Angela Ingersoll had been looking for a new kind of show for Artists Lounge Live. Because they do so many iconic singers, they had been thinking about Nat King Cole for a little while. And they were kind of nervous about trying to find someone who could take on that particular catalog. It’s a very specific voice. It’s one that everybody holds near and dear. If you meet someone, they know about Nat King Cole and are probably a fan. If you hear a bad version of ‘The Christmas Song’ … it kind of angers you, you know?”

Evan, however, had an ace up his sleeve about landing the gig even though he himself didn’t know he was being considered to take on Nat King Cole for Artists Lounge Live. “They [the Ingersolls] called me and said, “We heard that you sound a little like Nat King Cole. Are you familiar with his catalog?” And I just about fell out of my chair because I grew up listening to Nat King Cole. He was one of my grandmother’s favorite artists.” Evan, who’d come to the Ingersoll’s attention by way of a music director who worked with him and the Ingersolls for separate projects, submitted a clip of “Smile” and was on contract by the end of the evening.

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Evan performing in HAIR. (Photo: Brett A. Beiner)

Although—as you’ll see at the show—Evan not only sounds like Nat King Cole, he also looks like Nat King Cole. An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas is not about Evan impersonating the great singer, however. The show is Evan taking us through a musical memoir of sorts, balancing Cole’s songs with his own family stories. “My goal was to hearken back to him as much as possible in the way that I present his music, the way that I sound, the way that I move, so that people felt as though they were at one of his concerts,” Evan says. “Throughout the concert, they could not only get to know a little bit more about him through me talking about his life, but they could get to know a little bit more about me because our trajectories, as far as music and performance, are kind of similar. We kind of had similar upbringings.”

Evan’s grandmother passed away while he was in high school, so she never got to see her grandson step into the legacy of her favorite singer. For Evan, though, performing the songs of someone so important to the greater Martin family helps him stay connected to his grandmother and others. “[Performing this show] brings me a little bit of joy to be able to hearken back. Both of my grandmothers taught me so much about music and all of it. And, my dad, who I actually recently lost this year,” he says “I’m able to hearken back and pay tribute to all of those people who taught me so much about performance. And they were non-professional performers, for the most part. But, I’m able to tie them into the show that would have meant so much to all of us and weave them into the fabric of the show. It means so much to me. I get to sing a song to and for my grandmother every time we do the show.”

“There’s something that changes in a singer’s voice and presence when there’s such an emotional connection to the music,” Evan says. “You can love a song, but when you feel as though you are literally connected to a song, that takes it to an entire different level in your performance and in the way that people feel it. I think that the fact that I can feel my family with me on stage and can dedicate certain songs to them specifically, I think that makes the connection just that much deeper and richer for both myself and the audience.”

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Evan’s mother, herself a singer and Tampanian, plans to be at each of the five shows. “She’s putting together a cabaret show, knee-deep working on it now. She joined a couple bands in Tampa but moved to Alabama to take care of some family. [She’s back in Tampa now] so she really does just want to get back into seeing what’s possible. I’m excited to have her in the audience and maybe, maybe I can convince her to get up on stage one of those times,” he laughs.

To see An Unforgettable Nat King Cole Christmas starring Evan Tyrone Martin (and maybe his mom), get your tickets for any seats still available this weekend.

 

 

Jane Lynch Launches Holiday Performance Season @Straz

The merry, mighty and mighty merry Jane Lynch (Glee, Hollywood Game Night) saunters into the Jaeb Theater this weekend for a retro-Christmas cabaret concert featuring her pals Kate Flannery (Meredith on The Office) and the dashing Tim Davis. Caught in the Act caught up with Jane on the phone recently to get the buzz about her show A Swingin’ Little Christmas.

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Tim Davis, Jane Lynch and Kate Flannery star in A Swingin’ Little Christmas.

Caught in the Act: Hi, Jane. We can’t wait for you to get down here to Tampa.

Jane Lynch: Me too! I’m so thrilled. Can’t wait.

CITA: We can’t wait either and you’re gonna be in the best space, too. Wait until you to see the cabaret space that we have. You’re gonna love it.

JL: Great!

CITA: Let’s talk about you growing up and then we’ll head into the A Swingin’ Little Christmas show which we’re so excited about. So, at what point in your life did you figure out that you were funny?

JL: It wasn’t like a startling revelation, and it wasn’t something that I would proudly say, “I’m funny.” But I love to laugh. I have spent my life finding the funny in any situation—it’s never too soon for me. And although I might not say it publicly, inside I’ll always have a joke about something, just horrible. Ironically, that puts it in a place … you can have a good belly laugh. It’s a gift I was born with. My family is the exact same way. We are always miming things for the irony and not gut laughs, a lot of it is always smirky kind of laughs—like little funny laughs. But that’s kind of where I come from and I am on a relentless search for the funny in a situation. It’s a very, very satisfying path.

Jane and her sister. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

CITA: You had two siblings, right? You grew up south of Chicago … did you have an older sister and a younger brother?

JL: Yes.

CITA: What were the three of you like growing up? Were you cutting up? Were you giving your parents all kinds of fits? Were you testing out material?

JL: Well my brother and I had very much the same sense of humor—he’s two years younger than I am. My sister was a little apart from that … she could laugh but she was driven, from almost the moment she was born, to leave our family and start her own. She loves kids. She loves … you know, she’s a stellar teacher. But my brother and I certainly shared a lot of laughs growing up. We watched television together, we would re-enact scenes and, yeah, we loved it.

My parents loved to sing. My parents were really funny, too, but they loved to sit around the kitchen table after dinner and sing. I would join them after a while. My sister would roll her eyes and go to bed and my brother too. But I loved doing that.

CITA: Did they play instruments? Did somebody play the piano or you would just sit around and sing songs?

JL: No, it was all a capella. We loved musicals, and my father was a great harmonizer and my mother loved to sing. They knew all the songs from the musicals—all the songs from their day, which would was in the late 40’s, early 50’s. That’s how I fell in love with that music, like Glenn Miller and we wouldn’t sing that of course because that’s instrumental, but Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Rosemary Clooney. My mother could sound and looked a lot like Rosemary Clooney. Yeah, so we had a great musical education growing up. I didn’t know it was an education, I just knew it was really great music, and I got to sing it with them. But nobody’s musical. My brother plays the piano. But it’s not like we were pulling out our instruments like the Partridge Family or anything like that.

Jane’s family at Christmas. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

JL: Sometimes we’d put on a record and sing with the record but when we were at the kitchen table and my parents had a couple of whiskey’s in them, then we would be singing together. It was so much fun.

CITA: We love that story. So, alright, when you guys had your Christmas holiday, did you have albums that you would listen to as a family?

JL: Yes. In fact, we listened to the same stuff Christmas after Christmas, and they were usually compilations like … Firestone used to put out a compilation every year of pop singers doing Christmas songs and choirs as well. So, you’d have a combination of Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney and then some choir that did some beautiful devotional hymn. Every once in a while, I’ll hear one of those cuts on the radio for Christmas music and it just brings me back.

CITA: Yes. We had Johnny Mathis and Doris Day. One note of Johnny Mathis and we go right back.

JL: Yep, I hear you. Yeah, that’s good Christmas music.

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CITA: Now we have a lot of audience here in Tampa for you, and they’ll know you mostly as Sue Sylvester from Glee. Which won’t make them different from many of your other audiences probably, but there’s a big jump from Sue Sylvester to Jane Lynch in A Swingin’ Little Christmas. So, can you just help us make this mental leap so that nobody shows up thinking it’s Sue Sylvester’s Swingin’ Little Christmas?

JL: Oh, I think they’ll adjust pretty quickly. I don’t think there’s much of an attitude adjustment. But let me tell you, though. You know Kate Flannery who was Meredith—the drunk in The Office?

CITA: Yes.

JL: She’s my very good friend, and we’ve been singing together on and off for decades. We’ve been doing sketch comedies together, and every time we would do a sketch comedy show—which was almost every night when we were coming up—we would do a song. We harmonize very well together and we have a lot of fun together. So, I enlisted here to sing with me. As soon as The Office ended, Glee ended around the same time, and I said, “Let’s hit the road.” So, we hit the road with this wonderful five-piece band and the Christmas album came out of that collaboration. The Christmas show came out of that as well.

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So it’s basically A Swingin’ Little Christmas which is the album. You can get it on Amazon or iTunes. And also we’ll be selling them at the show… we’ll sign them for you. And we’re doing all of that music and it’s the late 50’s- you’re gonna love this. The late 50’s, early 60’s. Some of it’s full orchestra on the album of course; we’re only traveling with a quintet and the rest of it is a five-piece jazz stuff. We got like a Dave Brubeck [style] “Three Kings of Orient.” We’ve got a Louis Prima King Wenceslas song, so we’re all over the place. It’ll remind you of the Christmas albums you grew up with—a lot of those arrangements.

It’s going to ring true to where most of the Christmas music that endures, are songs recorded in the late 50’s or early 60’s—the Rosemary Clooney’s and the Bing Crosby’s and the Perry Como’s. We’re very much in that ilk.

CITA: Oh, we cannot wait. How much fun is this show for you, really?

JL: It’s the best! You know, we haven’t done the show since Christmas last year and we just love it. Kate and I have our shenanigans together. She’s very much a wild card and spontaneous. I’m very precise and a little bit anal retentive. It really works well within a comedy. And Tim is like our Lyle Waggoner- I don’t know if you’ll remember the Carol Burnett show? If you remember Lyle Waggoner, he was the very handsome guy who just stood there and laughed at the ladies and he’s got an amazing voice. He was the vocal arranger on Glee, so all of our songs were vocally arranged by him with some real tight three part harmonies.

CITA: Yes. Okay, so if we have not communicated how excited we are about this show, let us just reiterate. Kate Flannery is hysterical. How did you all meet each other? Were you Second City players together?

JL: Yeah. We met at the Audience Theater, which is this crazy theater that’s still around, that does wild kind of rebellious improv shows. We met doing the Real Life Brady Bunch where we did actual episodes of the Brady Bunch dressed up like the characters and it became kind of a cult hit. We traveled all over the country with it. We ended up at the Village Gate in New York for about four or five months. We bonded there and then we went onto L.A. When we all got to L.A., we did sketch comedy shows and we were going to have a theater for a month so we put together a crazy little improv-based show. Kate and I would usually do a song almost every show. So, we’ve known each other… we’ve been swimming in the same pond for probably 30 years.

CITA: That’s fantastic. Maybe this isn’t going to make any sense to you, but you and Kate are sometimes so funny we can’t laugh. You both say things in a way that’s so funny, we can’t even laugh at it. Like ninja humor. And you both have that. We can’t imagine you both onstage at the same time.

JL: Thank you. I think you’re gonna love it.

Kate and Jane. (Photos from Instagram: @janelynchofficial)

CITA: Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind. So, you talk about Carol Burnett who I know is a huge hero, heroine to you, and you all got to perform together on Glee. One of our favorite recent things that Carol has done is when she went on Jimmy Fallon and she was teaching him her tricks for how she wouldn’t crack. And she would bite her knuckle so hard that the pain would help her keep from cracking.

JL: [laughing] Understood.

CITA: We were thinking about you and all the films that you’ve been in and how funny you are and all of these hysterical people that you have been in shows with, and how do you… how do you not crack? And when you’re on a stage with Kate, how are y’all not cracking each other up all the time?

JL: Well when I am tempted to crack up I just start saying the Hail Mary, internally. “Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…” I just do the Hail Mary really fast, so I can get my focus on something else.

CITA: Are you good at keeping it straight?

JL: I am pretty good at it. I will give myself that. But you know, sometimes, you just can’t help it with Kate. And also, I do … I’ll crack up right in her face sometimes. I mean, it’s that kind of show. I’m allowed.

Listen to part of Jane’s interview on our podcast, Act2.

See Jane crack up in A Swingin’ Little Christmas in the Jaeb Theater this weekend, Dec. 8 and 9.