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Coach Sylvester Does the Great American Songbook

Jane Lynch joined by Kate Flannery in Carlyle debut

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As Sue Sylvester on “Glee,” she was everybody’s favorite mean high school coach. Jane Lynch has ditched that track suit for more sophisticated apparel and appears in cabaret at the Café Carlyle through September 22. A veteran of Broadway’s “Annie” in the role of the mendacious Mrs. Hannigan, she spoke to me about this important club debut via phone from Los Angeles and made a particular point of emphasizing that she is not doing it alone.

“Kate Flannery [Meredith in “The Office”] and I have been friends for decades and we’ve been touring this musical act for about four years now,” Lynch said. “We created ‘Two Lost Souls’ specifically for the Carlyle, where we always wanted to play. We pitched it to them, and they gave us these dates!

“We’re gonna be doing songs we love. Kate has a way of being unpredictable and I’m more precise and she ends up blowing everything apart, so it’s fun that way and we have a great dynamic. We’re doing ‘Two Lost Souls’ from ‘Damn Yankees,’ ‘Bei mir bis du schon’ — two Irish Catholic girls — that should work really well [chuckles]. It’s the Barry Sisters’ rendition, they were a Yiddish sister act, and we’re also doing the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ a lot of crazy things. It’ll be a lot of fun and, as a matter of fact, I’m heading over to her house momentarily to do a little singing rehearsal.

“We also have a Christmas album, ‘A Swingin’ Little Christmas,’ which did very well last year — it was number eight on the Billboard chart. We traveled that Christmas show from mid-November to Christmas Eve in various cities, versions of Christmas songs we still listen to that were recorded in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. The show’s a lot of fun, mostly big band sounds.”

Lynch admitted that music from the Great American Songbook is her go-to, explaining, “We have a wonderful band that is basically a jazz bunch, and when you’re jazz you can really do anything. Our music director, Tony Guerrero, is a real throwback to that era and he will be with us in a quartet.”

There will also be lots of patter, she assured me, adding, “This had to be a duet show, because I never want to to be alone up there on the stage. Kate is a terrific partner, and we love doing it. I think we’ve kind of an Eve Arden/ Kaye Ballard energy.”

I first became aware of Lynch through her hilarious work with Christopher Guest in his piquant satirical films and, when asked to name her favorite among them, said, “‘Best in Show’ because that was the first one, but I love them all. ‘A Mighty Wind’ was a transcendent experience because of the music. We actually toured with that music for two weeks. We all got into a bus and toured, which was so much fun.”

Lynch’s Emmy award-winning “Glee” broke so much ground, especially in its presentation of gay characters — the Darren Criss/ Chris Colfer duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was frankly one of the most dazzlingly romantic things I have ever seen on the boob tube — as well as Becky (Lauren Potter), Lynch’s disarming little factotum on the show who has Down syndrome.

“You asked if it was easy for me to play such a mean character as Sue. Oh, yes, laughably easy! It was so much fun to play her arrogance. And Becky was an important character, also, because it showed that Sue had a soft spot for Becky and could be vulnerable, except Becky was such a pistol, with nothing vulnerable about her. She was a really tough kid.”

Lynch described the drug overdose death of “Glee” star Cory Monteith as “very sad. He was a really, really nice guy, a really good guy. If that quality exuded from him on screen, it was because it was for real.”

Lynch had her own substance issues in her past — with alcohol — and when I observed in regard to that how hard show business can be, she responded, “That feels like a lifetime ago. But, really, I don’t find it to be a hard business. In the beginning, it was tough but I really don’t have any emotional memory of it. I think the biggest thing that happened to me was I stopped taking things personally and everything became a lot easier after that.”

Lynch always projects a bracing joy, whether it’s hosting the Emmies (“seems a lifetime ago, but I was nervous”), yakking on a talk show, or filling up a screen with her talent. I remember being at a New York press screening for “Julia and Julia” full of jaded critics and such, but when she made her entrance it seemed the entire theater exhaled — “Oh, great, her!” — testament to the kind of instant and potent audience rapport she has.

“On that film, Meryl was so great, such a pro,” Lynch recalled. “She’s so easy and she makes it look so easy. I learned a lot from watching her. It’s not brain surgery, it’s about taking it easy.

“I don’t really talk about personal stuff, but, yes, I am happy and I have a partner. I’m from Chicago, which I still love, but I live in LA. It’s very hot right now, but I adore it, and I think I could be happy doing anything here.

“I never lived in New York but I go there a lot for work and adore it every time. I’m going up Sunday to do some more episodes of ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,’” on which she has a recurring role.

Lynch works constantly on TV, also popping up in all sorts of movies, and seems, luckily, to be doing only and whatever she wants to do.

“I worked for several years in non-Equity theater before I got a job at Second City,” she said of the famed Chicago theater company. “I’m a character actor so that’s a different thing than ingénues. For women in this business, it’s a tough row to hoe when you’re not a character actor. People project sex onto you and men will take advantage of that.

Regarding any #MeToo experiences, Lynch said, “Men weren’t atracted to me in that way. They’d think of me as a man. No, I didn’t get that treatment. And, if that limited me in terms of roles, I didn’t even notice it, never had that view of it. I never had any career goals, just kind of stumbled into everything. As they say, you make a plan and God laughs. Apart from ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ I’ve been working on an initiative for NBC to clear the animal shelters for the last four years. We are challenging America to adopt all the animals in shelters all over the country. We’ve managed to hook up 150,000 pets with 150,000 forever homes. I, myself have four dogs, all rescue.

JANE LYNCH & KATE FLANNERY | “Two Lost Souls” | Café Carlyle. 35 E. 76th St. | Through Sept. 22: Tue.-Sat. at 8:45 p.m. | $75-$200, with a $25 food & drink minimum at bit.ly/2CJPiuf or 212-744-1600

Updated 11:37 pm, September 12, 2018
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