Cooking contests are an American pastime. After a long history of local bake-offs at county fairs and churches around the country, competitions hit the big time in 1949, when Pillsbury held its first national recipe contest. During that prosperous post-World War II era, Americans were watching television for the first time and buying new gadgets for their kitchens. And hundreds of thousands of people were hoping to strike it rich by concocting a tasty dish no one had ever sampled before.
Most of those contestants were women. This was the 1950s, after all, a time when the kitchen was still seen as the traditional domain of housewives. The lives of those women—and their kitchen conversations—are captured in the new musical, A Taste of Things to Come, which runs March 20 to April 29 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place.
The show begins in 1957. The place is a family kitchen in Winnetka, the upper-middle class enclave on Chicago’s North Shore. Four women are gathering for a weekly meeting, working on their entries for a Betty Crocker cooking contest.
“They are all members of the Betty Crocker Cooking Club,” says Debra Barsha, who co-wrote the show’s book, music, and lyrics with Hollye Levin. “But it was really a place for them to get together and talk about what was going on in their lives. In those days, women did not go out and meet at bars. They met in the kitchen.”
In addition to chatting about their lives—including the men in their lives—the Winnetka ladies also discuss the second Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which was sparking talk around America about a previously taboo topic and revolutionizing perceptions of female desire. In the second act, the action flashes forward to 1967, and the conversation reflects just how much society was changing during that tumultuous decade.
A Taste of Things to Come shows women feeling constrained in the roles society has designated for them, but beginning to break out of that mold. In that way, the show presents a parallel to the popular television series Mad Men, which depicted the milieu of New York City advertising agencies during the same period, years when women were asserting themselves, even as they continued to face deep male chauvinism in their homes and workplaces. Some viewers recoiled from the misogyny in Mad Men, but Barsha agrees with critics who praised the show for its accurate depiction of society’s attitudes at the time. Barsha and Levin strived for a similar accuracy when they wrote A Taste of Things to Come.
“Whether you like it or not, this is what it was,” Barsha says. “These women had to get dinner on the table for their husbands.” But she adds, “There’s no man-bashing in this show, not a shred of it. We just let the characters speak for themselves, and how they relate personally to each of their male partners. They had their own thoughts and dreams, and their own aspirations. And men were a part of it.”
In the midst of all the cooking and conversation, these four women also break out into songs (this is a musical, after all) that resemble rock ‘n’ roll and pop hits you might hear now on an oldies radio station. “Hollye and I love the music of the ’50s and ’60s,” says Barsha, who played keyboards in the band for Broadway’s long-running production of Jersey Boys and has also collaborated with star musicians including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and funk legend George Clinton. In addition to the four actors onstage, A Taste of Things to Come features an all-female rock band, and the songs they perform aren’t all in the style of the girl groups. “One of the things that we noticed, in the ’50s especially, was that a lot of the up-tempo, funk, soul-infused stuff was sung by men,” says Barsha. “And so we thought, let’s put this fun stuff in the mouths of these Midwestern women.”
Neither Barsha nor Levin is from the Chicago area, although both have family members who live in the neighborhood. Levin, whose previous plays include The Polo Lounge and Funny Business, grew up near St. Louis and now lives in California. Barsha, who also composed the music for Radiant Baby, a 2003 show about artist Keith Haring, is from Syracuse, New York. They chose Winnetka as their setting for this because it seemed representative of America’s heartland. “We just love that it was smack-dab in the middle of America,” shares Barsha.
Director-choreographer Lorin Latarro has been with A Taste of Things to Come since the show received its first production in 2016 at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where she is an associate artist. Later that year, the show ran Off-Broadway at Manhattan’s York Theatre. A review in The New York Times praised the “breezy musical” for its catchy songs.
During those productions, women who remember the 1950s and 1960s said they enjoyed seeing their memories come to life onstage. “For older women, it’s just so much fun,” observes Latarro says. Meanwhile, younger women in the audiences often expressed shock at the sexist attitudes in old television commercials projected onto the set during the play. “Young people, their minds are blown,” Latarro says. “They can’t believe these things were real.”
Of course, there are men in the audiences, too. And many of them have said they enjoyed a chance to eavesdrop on female conversations. “They were like, ‘This is fantastic. I learned so much,’” Barsha recalls.
Latarro says A Taste of Things to Come has taken on a new resonance since the election of President Donald Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. She hopes that this show about an earlier era will inspire women as they progress into the future. “What’s great is it captures this moment when feminism was invented, in a way. It was certainly in its first wave since Susan B. Anthony,” suggests Latarro. “In a way, each of these four women is paving the way for other women, in their own small universe. Nobody’s running for president, but these women, in their own way, push women forward. And I think it’s cool for every woman in the audience to feel that she could do that—in their own small way, in their own town.”