First watching the red and gold hued opulence of Harmonia Gardens, the restaurant in the 1969 film Hello, Dolly, the moment that struck me in wide-eyed child wonder wasn’t Barbra Streisand’s insouciant sashay down the gilded staircase or the sly wink of Louis Armstrong’s cameo appearance. It wasn’t even the brassy notes of Jerry Herman’s canonical refrain welcoming the character of Dolly Levi back where she belonged (RIP to Herman, a gifted composer of much of the American musical theatre songbook).
No, gentle reader, what entranced me was the turkey. Oh, that glorious moment when Streisand sits opposite a dour, penny-pinching Walter Matthau and rhapsodizes about the glories of a simple roast turkey, “with everything on the side”, including giblets, dumplings (“lighter than air, they are”) and beets.
It wasn’t the turkey itself that held my attention. Despite a lifelong bemusement at other people’s fascination with turkey, it’s a bird that I often find inferior to its smaller, more modest fowls of a feather. Instead, it’s the relish with which Streisand busily ladles food onto Matthau’s plate — an act of sharing and officiousness all tied together in one rich comic scene.
In the recent Broadway revival starring Bette Midler, this scene becomes a halt in the frenetic action of the musical. “Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times review. By savouring each bite of dinner and of life, the character of Dolly Levi shows she is one to be reckoned with, not pitied due to circumstance or relegated to the world of true comedy.
Food in musical theatre has been used to express emotions from longing after unimagined bounty, such as the chorus of orphans in Oliver’s “Food, glorious food”, to using food as symbolic outlet for creative relief and life dissatisfaction, as in the pies in Waitress.
Although ostensibly reflecting the time period of the musical itself, food can also reveal more about the mindsets surrounding race and class barriers of the era, according to the author of A Taste of Broadway: Food In Musical Theatre. “Many musicals are based on stories that originated long ago in lands far from the stages of Broadway. The stories were reinterpreted by modern-day Westerners, primarily American and British men, who may have viewed food differently from the original author,” writes Jennifer Packard, pointing to the golden age of Broadway in the mid-twentieth century in particular. “Attitudes towards women, racial and religious minorities, and people from foreign nations have changes since then. Food messages related to characters and identity that are understood to be downright racist today were viewed as completely acceptable in their time.”
Today, just as some modern productions of Miss Saigon have updated nonsense lyrics such as Dju Vui Vai (The Wedding Song) to actual Vietnamese, others use region-specific dishes to highlight these differences. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, which has a movie version set to be released in 2020, the simple shaved ice treat of piragua is both a symbol of innocent summers past and also the movement of corporate America’s takeover of small, family owned businesses (in the form of a Mr. Softee). It’s a world away from the decadence of Dolly Levi’s Harmonia Gardens, but part of the same set of ingredients, nonetheless.
Source: Thanks https://www.forbes.com/sites/lesliewu/2019/12/28/how-food-in-musicals-gives-viewers-a-taste-of-something-more/