Jennifer Packard's A Taste of Broadway: Food in Musical Theater

Reviewed by Morgen Stevens-Garmon

A Taste of Broadway: Food in Musical Theater  By Jennifer Packard Rowman & Littlefield (Dec. 2017) 214 pgs.

A Taste of Broadway: Food in Musical Theater
By Jennifer Packard
Rowman & Littlefield (Dec. 2017)
214 pgs.

“Food, glorious food” sing the workhouse boys of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!, and so too sings Jennifer Packard in her new book A Taste of Broadway: food in musical theater, the latest offering in Rowman & Littlefield’s series, Studies in Food and Gastronomy. Part food history, part musical theater analysis, and part cookbook, A Taste of Broadway presents a flavorful if slightly confused dish.

Packard’s central conceit is that food on the musical theater stage is not only an integral part of character and story, but it can also serve as a key to a deeper understanding of the show. Divided into seven chapters, the book examines food as it relates to setting, character, and plot within some 29 different musicals. Packard spends each chapter investigating between two to six productions connecting the food on stage to the creative history of the show, providing a close reading of the lyrics and musical book, and often including a recipe inspired by the production. The intentions or “theme” of each chapter are stated in the opening lines, but the results are sometimes muddled.

Chapter one, for example, explores how food is used to set the scene in Pacific Overtures, The Music Man, Face the Music, As Thousands Cheer, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and the second chapter goes on to discuss the use of regional foods in creating the setting for Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair, and The Most Happy Fella. These first two themes seem interchangeable, and the reasoning behind Packard’s groupings is not entirely clear. Why does the “box social” in Oklahoma! establish a regional setting, but the “ice cream sociable” in The Music Man does not? It does, of course it does, and in her introduction, Packard underscores that food can be used in a myriad of ways within each show. Yet, the thematic groupings can strike one as arbitrary and not entirely helpful.

Packard fares better in chapter five which looks at hunger as a motivating action in musicals. The aforementioned Oliver dares to ask for more of the poor gruel served him, and his hunger takes the audience through a musical retelling of Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist. Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread for his starving family, and his crime puts in motion the saga of Les Miserables. In Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the sons of biblical Jacob go searching for food only to be reunited with their long lost brother, and in the process inadvertently set off the chain of events that result in Moses leading the Hebrews back out of Egypt centuries later. Food, or the lack of it, can lead to epic storytelling.

Recipes are scattered among the musical descriptions. After reading about the food of the French Revolution, directions for how to make “Jean Valjean’s Stolen Loaf” are included. Some recipes are more rooted in research than others. “Laurey’s Berry Tarts,” so appealing at Oklahoma!’s box social, are adapted from a 1906 recipe that comes out of Missouri, and “Cousin Nettie’s Codfish Chowder” is taken from Mainstays of Maine, a book by Robert P. Tristram Coffin which lyricist Oscar Hammerstein used to research his setting for Carousel. The majority of the recipes are not given sources, and one is left to assume that they sprung fully formed from Packard’s brain. Packard so scrupulously details the history behind foods in each musical, one wishes for insight into the origins of her own recipes like the aptly named “Human-Free Meat Pies,” inspired by Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

When baking bread, a layer of flour is distributed across the work surface to discourage the dough from sticking and at the same time allow for the tension that helps the loaf maintain its shape. Scholarly rigor is unevenly dusted throughout Taste, and the results are somewhat sticky. It is apparent that Packard knows her way around food history, but chapter one’s discussion of the Great Depression would have benefited from more substantive sources to support her generalized statements. Packard is prone to dangling declarations proclaiming a thing to be true and then moving on quickly without further explanation. In her introduction, she claims “Many musicals are based on stories that originated long ago in lands far from the stages of Broadway.” She does not give any examples, and this statement turns out to be untrue for most of the 29 musicals she examines in Taste. When referring to the creative teams behind the musicals, Packard’s tone is sometimes jarringly informal. Director and Choreographer Jerome Robbins is first introduced by his nickname Jerry before later being called Jerome Robbins. Theatre Guild founder Theresa Helburn appears only as Terry, a name used by her close friends. Given that Helburn died in 1959, it is unlikely that she and Packard maintained an intimate friendship justifying the nickname usage.

Packard’s choice of musicals feels equally inconsistent. She gives devoted attention to Face the Music and As Thousands Cheer, two musicals from the 1930s that have not seen a full scale Broadway revival in over eighty years, but does not take the opportunity to investigate recent musicals. Aside from the 2015 musical Waitress and a brief paragraph on 2010’s The Scottsboro Boys, Packard ignores the last 15 years of musical theater. An entire section of chapter two is devoted to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair (originally written as a movie musical and only later adapted for the stage), but no reference is made to Tony Kushner’s 2003 Caroline, or Change, a musical that presents multiple ways race, class, and cultural identity intersect through food. While Packard looks at food through these topics, her failure to mention this show strikes this reader as a glaring omission. Ignored too are the excessive sandwiches of 2008’s Next to Normal, an instance when food sends a clear message that all is not well in the nuclear family at the show’s heart. Of course, it is neither possible nor advisable to mention every show, but choosing not to acknowledge so much of the last fifteen years of musical theater weakens Packard’s argument for the continuing significance of food as it sung about and shown on stage.

Though the organizing principles of A Taste of Broadway mush together, for the most part, like so much casserole, the subject of Packard’s study is worthy. Food studies is still a relatively new field, and there is a dearth of scholarship connecting food to performance. In looking at food through the lens of musical theater, Packard elevates a subject perhaps taken for granted and invites response and further investigation. It certainly whets the appetite.

Morgen Stevens-Garmon is the Associate Curator for the Theater Collection at the Museum of the City of New York.