Jane Lynch and Kate Flannery already had an ongoing cabaret act or two under their belts when the seed for “A Swingin’ Little Christmas” was planted. As Lynch tells it, the conception of the show and its accompanying album came from a love of the music of the season, not to mention a desire to do it on the cheap.
“We were doing a cabaret show, and we all ended up talking about our favorite Christmas music,” says Lynch. “And we thought there is nothing stopping us from doing a public domain Christmas album, where you don’t have to pay for it. It’s out there in public domain. So we proceeded to do that, and we got lost in it. We loved it.”
But as the title suggests — and as evidenced by the phrase “toe-tappin’” coming up four times over the course of our 23-minute phone conversation — the songs of “A Swingin’ Little Christmas” (which has toured since 2016 and lands at City Winery on Dec. 7-8) aren’t simply faithful re-creations of the Yuletide music of the Victorian lamplight era. With assists from singer (and “Glee” vocal arranger) Tim Davis and the Tony Guerrero Quintet, Lynch and Flannery give the songs the sheen of a more modern era. Slightly more modern, anyway.
“What brought us together about Christmas so much is that we really loved the Christmas music that we grew up with, the albums from the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, Bing Crosby and the Big Band sound, Rosemary Clooney, that sort of thing. So we are right there in that genre,” Lynch says. “We do really interesting things, I think, with those public domain Christmas songs, but they’re recognizable. It’s not like we go crazy with them and make them sound like something they’re not, because I think the thing about Christmas is recognition. It’s familiarity with the music.”
Lynch and Flannery are familiar with more than just the music. The partnership between the “Glee” and ”Hollywood Game Night” star and the tipsy worker drone from “The Office” — Flannery played Meredith — goes back decades to their time in Chicago’s Annoyance Theater and its production of “The Real Live Brady Bunch,” where Lynch played Carol and Flannery played Alice. Having performed together in one capacity or another since then, each has carved out her own role in the act.
“Kate is a brilliant singer,” Lynch says. “She’s like a studio singer from the ‘40s. She’s got such a great tone. I mainly do harmony to her stuff. I take the lead on some stuff and she takes the lead on some stuff, but basically, when we sing together, she’s the melody and I’m the harmony right underneath her.”
There’s a similar dynamic at play in their onstage rapport. “Kate is diametrically opposed to my vibe. Kate is very spontaneous and impulsive and out there, and I’m much more controlled and kind of keep us in a cage,” says Lynch. “She’s the crazy person. I’m the discipline person.”
But Lynch insists that Flannery’s loose-cannon urge to go for the joke at the expense of the sincerity of the material — an echo of Sophie Lennon, the old-hat comedian played by Lynch on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — is all part of the act. “That caricature of her onstage is always yukking it up, really bad Catskills humor every once in a while,” Lynch says. “And I love that about her character. But Kate is a technician. She knows what she’s doing.”
The commitment to doing what works can result in some unorthodox material for a Christmas show. Lynch and Flannery were already performing “Far From the Home I Love” in their cabaret act; in it went, because what better for Christmas than a song from “Fiddler on the Roof”?
“Right, exactly,” says Lynch. “And we do a Barry Sisters [also known as the Bagelman Sisters] interpretation. They used to perform for the Hasidic Jews of New York, and they would sing in Hebrew. So we do this all in English, but in our ‘Two Lost Souls’ show, we do ‘Bei Mir Bistu Shein’ in Yiddish. Two Irish-Catholic girls. It’s kind of a fun thing to watch, I think.”
And more than anything, that seems to be the driving motivation for “A Swingin’ Little Christmas.” Lynch has by now built up enough clout in the industry that she can essentially do whatever she wants to do just because she wants to, including the occasional touring show that largely plays intimate cabaret theaters that can’t substantially contribute to her bottom line. It’s a state of affairs that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lynch.
“After every show, we all look at each other and go, ‘How lucky are we that we get to do this, and that we put together this really kind of perfect little show?’
“I’m a big fan of simplicity,” she says. “We don’t need a special set or anything. We’re basically just the five guys in their suits — and I’m very meticulous about how everybody looks — in their suits with their dark red ties. And then us in our dark red and black outfits, and we keep it that simple.”
Adds Lynch, “It’s not only an easy show for us to do, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world.”
JANE LYNCH: A SWINGIN’ LITTLE CHRISTMAS
With Kate Flannery and Tim Davis. At City Winery. Dec. 7-8 at 8 p.m. Tickets $67-$97. citywinery.com/boston
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.