As a teenager, guitarist Hollye Levin was opening for Muddy Waters at storied clubs such as Chicago’s Earl of Old Town. The St. Louis native moved on to tour with Billy Joel and Tom Waits. After she performed a one-woman show about her experiences, director Rob Reiner deemed her “a cross between Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon.”
‘A Taste of Things to Come’
When: March 20 -April 29
Where: Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets: $30 – $75
Such is the pedigree of “A Taste of Things to Come,” a Winnetka-set musical Levin penned with Debra Barsha. The all-female show opening March 20 follows a group of North Shore neighbors, from cooking with Betty Crocker in the 1950s to sexcapades with Albert Kinsey in the 1960s. Set entirely in a kitchen, the plot has the women dishing about life, love and culinary delicacies such as Lime Tuna Jell-O Salad and Spam Casserole.
“In my mother’s time, one of the only places women could really share their feelings was in the kitchen,” says Levin, 63. “You couldn’t go to a bar – people would think you were a prostitute. If you went to therapy, people thought you were crazy. In the kitchen, you could laugh and cry and bitch with your friends without people telling you that you were hysterical.”
Barsha, 59, and Levin put “Taste” in Winnetka in large part because of New Trier High School. There’s song about the school in the show.
“I grew up in a town where everyone talked about ‘getting out,’ “ says Levin, a St. Louis native. “I wanted one of the ‘Taste’ characters to have that same dream, and be able to look to others who had achieved it. New Trier has so many people who went on to big things — Rock Hudson, Ann-Margret, Christine Ebersole, Ann Hampton Calloway. It made Winnetka the perfect setting,” Levin says.
Much of the show’s material comes from interviews Barsha and Levin did, culling stories from women who survived both bullet bras and bra-burnings. Musically, Levin was adamant that the score reflect the times of the show. Barsha filled the first act with ‘50s-type do-wop vocals and jazz; the second act moves into rock and roll territory with a nod toward the folk styles of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. Like the cast, it’s an all-female band.
“I spent years as the associate conductor of ‘Jersey Boys,’ so I know what it’s like to be a woman in a chair that usually belongs to a man. It was important to Hollye and I that the ‘Taste’ band be all female,” says Barsha.
The authors were also adamant about laying bare the lie of the “happy homemaker” and the notion that a woman’s worth was defined by her ability to snare and keep a man.
“My mother told me how single women would do their Saturday shopping in curlers,” Barsha recalled, “The curlers were so people would think you had a date that night. Even if you didn’t.”
Medical and marriage advice to woman ran the gamut from ridiculous to downright dangerous. “Doctors told pregnant women it was OK to drink and smoke cigarettes, because they relaxed you and being relaxed was good for the baby,” Barsha says. “Ads told women that making a bad cup of coffee was grounds for divorce.”
While it’s easy to poke fun at such retrogressive ridiculousness, “Taste” doesn’t shy away from the truly malevolent aspects of 1950s and the turbulent ‘60s. One of the characters has a purse full of Miltown, Darvon, Dexedrine and Valium. Another is having an affair with an African-American man – something that’s still illegal in many states during the musical’s first half. One has a husband who is obsessed with figure skating and interior design.
Then there are those jaw-dropping recipes: Swedish Meatballs bathed in a gravy of grape jelly and catsup; canapes consisting of Ritz crackers, Cheez Whiz and sardines, fresh canned crab with plum sauce (apple sauce, water, food coloring, and sugar) – they’re all mixed into the plot.
“I don’t know what the deal was with Jell-O and the 1950s,” says Levin. “Women were putting things in Jell-O that simply did not belong there. Carrots. Meat.”
When it comes to history, it’s more important than ever to look at how far women have — and haven’t — come, Barsha and Levin say. “You need to look back in order to move forward,” says Barsha. “When you see what our mothers and grandmothers put up with and accomplished, it gives you strength.”
One day, Barsha and Levin hope to have a food truck publicizing the show. “I don’t know that we’d want Jell-O Tuna Pie,” says Barsha, “But how cool would it be to sell fondue at intermission?”
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago-based freelance writer.