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Theater Preview: The Wexner Center Presents Taylor Mac’s ‘Holiday Sauce…Pandemic!’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Preview: The Wexner Center Presents Taylor Mac’s ‘Holiday Sauce…Pandemic!’
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Few artists have put as indelible a stamp on American culture of the last 20 years as Taylor Mac – who uses “judy” as a gender pronoun. Mac: a MacArthur Fellow and recipient of Bessie, Obie, and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards to barely scratch the surface. 

Since 2017, Mac has returned to judy’s roots in cabaret every year for an extravaganza uniting with frequent collaborators Matt Ray (bandleader, musical director, and arranger), Machine Dazzle (designer), producers Pomegranate Arts, and a cast of special guests, friends, and colleagues. This year, that traveling circus shifts online with Holiday Sauce…Pandemic!, streaming video accompanied by Mac’s marvelous, moving Christmas album. I spoke with judy by phone.

When COVID began closing performance opportunities, Mac decided, “You know, part of my philosophy is you got to incorporate the calamity of your lives into the show. And the calamity obviously is a pandemic. So we said, well, let’s do a virtual version and it’s been really fun making it.” 

Holiday Sauce pays specific tribute to Mac’s drag Mother Flawless Sabrina. In the liner notes to the album, judy wrote, “Her flawlessness was found through fostering artistic expression as a form of civics.” I asked Mac about that line and the commitment to family and community at the core of this piece and judy responded, “The point of [this show] was that December is a rough time, especially for a lot of queers. You know, sometimes it’s hard to have to go back home and, and feel like you have to censor yourself when you’re around your family and you always have to enter their world.”

“They don’t tend to stretch into your world, and that’s not true for everybody, but it is true for a lot of us,” Mac continued. “And so the holiday time has become a bit of a burden and my drag mother, Flawless Sabrina always said, ‘You’re the boss, applesauce.’ So you can make it any way that you want, your life.”

One of the key figures in Mac’s worlds is arranger and bandleader Matt Ray, a crucial collaborator on the Pulitzer-nominated A 24-Decade History of Popular Music and all over the Holiday Sauce project. “Matt is really my brother, you know?” judy said, “We’ve been working together now since 2008. Going through that process [of that 24-hour show] together kind of created an intense bond.”

Since that work, Mac said, “I usually kind of have the idea for, for the thing. And then I let Matt do his magic. You know, I don’t micromanage what, what he’s going to write or create. And he’s just one of the best jazz players and thinkers in New York City. And he’s really transformed the cabaret scene in New York. He produced the album and just one of my favorite humans on the planet and he is pure love, and he brings all these loving musicians into our world and they become our family at this point because we’ve been with them for so long.”

One of the first things that struck me and resonated on hearing the album was gorgeous baroque arrangements of two Velvet Underground classics fused with classic carols. Those medleys trace their roots back to Mother Flawless Sabrina.

Mac said, “[She] was really connected to that Andy Warhol world – she started drag pageants in the late 1950s. I thought it would be fun – since this is kind of in disguise a celebration of her – to include some Velvet Underground songs and make them Christmas carols. I had the idea to put ‘Carol of the Bells’ with “Black Angel’s Death Song’ and then ‘Drummer Boy’ with ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties,’ because they seem like they would fit dramaturgically together. And then, Matt went wild with the beautiful arrangements.” 

“And we love being as theatrical and crazy as possible,” Mac chuckled. “That’s part of our kind of queer aesthetic. I also like to put things that don’t seem like they should go together, together. So this kind of overly cool, in my opinion, dramatic Velvet Underground kind of improvy thing with this very pure, religious Christmas song. When you squish them together, you end up kind of feeling, you feel like everyone’s invited to the party now, you know.”

“You feel the Pagan roots of the holidays suddenly, you know. Instead of it being reduced to this homogenous thing and, and vice versa, instead of that Warhol factory scene being reduced to only being cool and no sentiment and, nothing from the mainstream culture or participating in it – suddenly, they all kind of exist together and it does interesting things to them.”

That warm, intriguing sense of juxtaposition flows throughout Holiday Sauce. Mac said, “[Flawless] lived her life that way. She had a lovely career, but it wasn’t about careerism [for her]. It was about living artistic expression every single day and providing opportunities for others to be expressive. So we’ve kind of taken that inspiration and that’s why it’s a virtual vaudeville. And that’s why, instead of just like, ‘me on the stage,’ you know, non-stop.”

This let judy continue to use the guest performers – keeping a tradition of working with locals on every stop – and bring in new elements, including an animation by violinist Dana Lyn. Mac spoke to that expanding company aspect. “The more we do it every year, the more other performers we add to it. And so we’ve got the Queen of Detroit Blues, Thornetta Davis, joining us on the show and Steffanie Christi’an does the cover of ‘Grandma’s Hands’. It’s just the most extraordinary thing you’ve ever heard. And international boylesque star, Tigger! is joining us. It’s a wild party with lots of different fun people.”

With all the success and the wide-ranging artistic pinnacles Mac has scaled, I asked what brings judy back to cabaret. Mac answered, “I say over and over again I’m in it for the hang. Every time I do it for ego or ambition, it never quite works, you know?’. So I’m just more in it so that we can all be together and live performance does that in a way that no other art form really does.”

Like any Christmas show worth its salt, Holiday Sauce…Pandemic! comes back to love, which Mac referred to again and again. “I love hanging out with the audience. I love hanging out with the musicians and fellow performers, and I love the backstage energy. I love the onstage energy. I like hanging out with the ideas and the people that have been in conversation with those ideas for centuries.”

Holiday Sauce…Pandemic! streams at 7:00 pm on December 12. For donation-based tickets and more info, please visit wexarts.org.

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