How many musicals out there can boast an all-female cast, creative team, orchestra, and a topic that celebrates intersectional feminist stories with humor and catchy songs?
Debra Barshathe bookwriter, composer and lyricist behind the new musical A Taste of Things to Comespoke with Windy City Times about trying to encompass all of the above with co-author Holley Levin. Their new musical is love story to suburban moms like their own, who discovered just how impossible it was to conform to their eras' sexual and racial barriers.
The duo's wildly different backgrounds made for an ideal partnership to bring a society of suburban housewives to life. "Holley is a straight woman, I am a gay woman, she cooks and I don't" Barsha admitted. "I've never turned the oven on in my apartment!"
After the death of Levin's mother, the collaborators found a trove of her prized possessions. "There were books from the '50s by Dr. Spock, Betty Crocker cookbooks, even pocket manuals by Joe Bonomo that would help you improve your personality and find a man that my mother used to have, too," Barsha said. "It was the beginning of the sexual revolution, the Kinsey Report had just come out. Women were starting to realize it's not about getting a rump roast on the table; there's a lot more to life than that."
Barsha and Levin's research led them to a socially acceptable outlet for married women: neighborhood clubs. "Back then, women didn't go out to bars together, unless they were gay," Barsha said. "They had cooking clubs, sewing clubs and book clubs. That's where the gossip and secrets were exchanged." They saw Winnetka, Illinoisthe real hometown of Ann-Margret, Burt Lancaster and Rock Hudsonas the ideal setting for their fictional ladies' success stories.
In A Taste of Things to Come, we're in Winnetka circa 1957, and Joan is having the ladies over for a cook-off guaranteed them to win them first prize in a Betty Crocker competition! There are the usual snags, like gossip and poor cooking skills, but there are also deep-rooted problems not even their buttoned-up era can suppress.
After a drunken affair, pregnant Connie believes her baby may not be born with her husband's good looks. Agnes is a fame-obsessed single gal discovering there is a lot more to her diverse background than the suburb where she was raised. Joan has fudged some small details ( like her name ) so her neighbors don't get concerned about her religious traditions, and Dottie would do some unhealthful things to be a size six. Together, these women must redefine what it means to be a woman when society's labels peel away.
Being openly gay throughout her entire career as an arranger, music director and creator has never hindered Barsha, but it has often made her the only queer woman in the orchestra pit. Because of this, Barsha insists on having an all-female show band for each run. "It's worth it," she said. "Assembling an all-female band is a lot of work, but it is possible."
Musical influences for the show range from girl groups to blues, but Barsha is proudest of the music that blurs gender lines: "We rewrote music history and gave music from funky male vocalists to women. We have these housewives singing in gritty male rock/pop styles."
Overall, Barsha hopes her audiences glean something about women's struggles while getting lost in a whirlwind of fun and music. "It's feminist without any man-bashing, and opinionated without being pedantic," Barsha said. "Women's friendships are enduring in any era and when you get invested in these four women, you're getting invested in women everywhere."
Debra Barsha & Holley Levin's A Taste of Things to Come runs through Sunday, April 29, at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St. For tickets and more information, visit BroadwayInChicago.com .