Food Takes a Starring Role in These On- and Off-Broadway Plays

Go behind the scenes with the people who make food-centric plays like 'Sweeney Todd,' 'Fat Ham,' and 'Sancocho' so delicious.

Annaleigh Ashford in the 2023 Broadway production of SWEENEY TODD

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Have you ever tried to sing after eating a meat pie? Or maybe perform a dark and brooding monologue? Or maybe you’ve tried dramatically spitting that meat pie across a stage while a hot spotlight shines on your face? At Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, these are daily occurrences — twice a day if you count Wednesday and Saturday matinees. 

Sweeney Todd is one of a handful of on- and off-Broadway shows that place food center stage. What and how the characters consume is crucial to the plot, but dealing with actual prepared food on stage can be tricky. It has to blend in with the set and story, be easy to replicate for each performance, and safe to eat, which is a difficult feat considering an entire cast is bound to have differing dietary restrictions. But with careful consideration from the director, writer, and a very talented props team, food can become a character of its own. 

In preparation for the 2023 revival of Sweeney Todd, production props master Denise Grillo went through what I think of as "The Meat Pie Trials.” She needed two different pie looks: one for act one, when pie shop owner Mrs. Lovett sings about making “The Worst Pies in London” and another for act two, when Sweeney and Lovett figure out how to, well, repurpose their murder victims into “the best pies in London.” Grillo worked closely with the Jerard Studio to create the perfect prop pie look, which the real, edible pies would be modeled after. 

“On stage, you always want as little real food as possible,” says Grillo. “So if it doesn’t pass the actor’s lips, or in the case of Sweeney Todd, get smashed, you want it to be fake.” 

Grillo and the production team wanted the “worst pies” to be just as unattractive as they are, per the song's lyrics, bad tasting. So after a ton of visual research, she presented the director, Thomas Kail, and set designer, Mimi Lien, with several examples of what an ugly pie could look like. After they settled on a lumpy, square-shaped style, Grillo brought it to the Jerard Studio where sculptors created a model out of hard foam and made a mold for replication. The process for the “best pie” was similar, resulting in a more petite, round pie with rustic fork imprints around the edges. 

In addition to sitting pretty in a glass case, some of the prop pies needed to align with the show’s evolving choreography. “I always have a really long sit down with the director and the choreographer about what they need the props to do,” says Grillo. During the song, “God, That’s Good!” Kail and choreographer Steven Hoggett wanted around a dozen “best pies” to slide across a bar as if they were pints of beer in a Western film. 

“You always ask yourself, well, what actually does this motion and how can I employ it in a prop?” So Grillo asked the Jerard Studio to place a round hole in the bottom of the “best pies” and filled that hole with a ski ball. At one point, Hoggett considered including a meat pie domino during the song, “A Little Priest,” so Grillo commissioned “worst pies,” each with one flat side so that they could stand up straight and be knocked in a line. They ultimately scrapped those two ideas but added in a sponge variation that could squeeze into a ball in your hand – a trick meant to mimic eating the pie in one bite. 

But in some cases, the pies had to be eaten for real. Enter Stacy Donnelly, who thanks to her experience as the food consultant for Waitress, has become a defacto pies-on-Broadway expert. “[Waitress] gave me a real think-on-your-feet tutorial about how food really works on stage and how it doesn’t,” says Donnelly. She was tasked with baking real pies that looked nearly identical to the prop pies. “[Grillo] sent me very detailed pictures of the size, dimension, and shape of what they needed to be, which luckily, is a very standard shape for a tart or small pie.” 

Although the pie shapes were relatively simple to recreate, the real challenge was landing on ingredients that followed the cast’s dietary restrictions. “Actors have a lot of needs as far as dairy and singing and what they can chew and swallow,” Donnelly says. “A lot of different things come into play that you wouldn’t think about when eating a normal meal. Is it too sloppy? Is it gonna get all over them? Can they eat it fast? Are they gonna burp afterwards?” On top of all that, several of the cast members are vegetarian and celiac, meaning Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies needed to be completely gluten-free and meatless. 

During one particularly peculiar day of rehearsal, Donnelly brought in eight pie flavors for taste test and structural integrity tests, since Sweeney smashes a pie to smithereens in act one. “When you’re working with real food, if you’re gonna smash it, you wanna make sure it doesn’t fly everywhere and onto an audience member,” she says. 

“Or the pit,” adds Grillo. “I had to actually put netting up under the grate on stage because there was pie crust hitting the violinist.” They also needed to make sure that the pies were easily cleanable so there wouldn’t be a risk of someone tripping, falling, and enduring a pie-related injury. 

Josh Groban and Gaten Matarazzo (who portray Sweeney and Tobias, respectively) tasted and smashed all eight fillings: mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, vegetable cheeseburger, vegetarian meatball sub (a crowd favorite), cookie dough, brownie, carrot cake, and a filling-less pie. The winner: scrambled eggs. “It was easy to slide down without much chewing,” says Donnelly.

Along with the pies, the Sweeney team utilizes salt dough (similar to Play-Doh), twice during the show. Once during “The Worst Pies in London,” when Mrs. Lovett whacks and rolls it out with a rolling pin. Like any baker, she dusts the dough with flour, or, what looks like flour. “It’s powderized Vitamin B,” says Grillo. “We want it to be as safe as possible when it’s airborne. We don’t want anyone actually breathing in too much flour on a regular basis.” The second salt dough is dyed pink and pushed through an enormous meat grinder. “It had to be a certain consistency to get through the grinder and have that… ooze.” 

The incredible amount of thought that goes into the way food is prepared on the Sweeney Todd stage makes sense, given that the ethically questionable meat pies are what catapults the story into action. “If you see people eating in literature, it means communion, which means that the people feel safe,” says playwright James Ijames. “Subconsciously, seeing people eat on stage is calming. Like, we’re in a place I can trust and I’m amongst people that aren’t gonna just pull a knife out and kill each other.” But when that trust is violated, the brutality can be greater than ever. 

Fat Ham

Joan Marcus

This is one of the many themes that Ijames explores in Fat Ham, a play loosely based on Hamlet that takes place at a backyard cookout in North Carolina. Protagonist Juicy’s mother is getting remarried to his dead father’s brother, who Juicy suspects is his father’s murderer. This all unravels around a smoker, platters of ribs, bowls of potato salad, and a cooler of Capri Sun. 

Juicy’s family, in fact, owns a barbecue joint in town. “I felt like people who cook meat and butcher pigs like these folks live from a different center of their body, and I wanted that energy with these characters,” says Ijames. “I wanted these to be folks that don’t have a complicated relationship to death and seeing something lose its life.”

But while Fat Ham’s plot leans into the Shakespearean tragedy, the setting is designed to be nostalgic. “Some of my favorite memories from being a child are eating outside and watching people cook outside. It’s very homelike to me.”

Throughout the play, characters are walking in and out of what looks like a house, naturally prepping for their barbecue, leaving different combinations of characters to interact in the backyard. “The only moment when multiple characters are together on the same plane, on the same level, doing almost the same thing, is when they sit around the table to eat,” says Fat Ham director Saheem Ali. “It’s like the one moment of harmony at the center of the play.”

Like Sweeney Todd, Fat Ham uses a combination of real and prop food. “What was important to me was that you could tell everyone was eating something different,” says Ali. “I wanted you to see, at a certain moment, someone actually eating corn, someone actually eating a rib, and someone actually eating bread so you get a multiplicity of food items.” 

In addition to the food props, designed by production props supervisors Claire M. Kavanah and Alexander Wylie, they source fresh food for every performance from Virgil’s Real Barbecue, just a five minute walk from the American Airlines theater. Ali also called in chef Lazarus Lynch, author of Son of a Southern Chef, to help direct the food styling. 

“[Lynch] sat in on a couple technical rehearsals, watched how the characters interacted with [the food], and just gave his expertise as someone who identifies with Black southern cooking,” says Ali. “He was able to kind of give us that extra eye of reality and detail to create a world that was authentic. It was everything from the actual food, to how it was plated, to how it was on the table, to all the dishes and condiments.”

Meanwhile, Ali would keep an eye out for that sense of food variation as no one is going to have the exact same plate at a barbecue after all. “With the food, it was no different than how I respond to lines that they say or movements that they do on stage. I kind of see where the instincts take them, and I respond.”

Creating an authentic-feeling cookout was always a priority for Ali, even during their off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in Philadelphia. “The AstroTurf looks real, the chairs are real, the tables are real, the porch is an actual porch. So that goes hand-in-hand with the food elements.” Even the smoker was filled with a hickory-scented charcoal, so the entire theater smelled like a barbecue. 

Although the production had to cut the charcoal when they moved to the American Airlines theater – the scent wasn’t able to fill the significantly larger space – the smoker continues to run throughout the duration of the play and audience members who sit close enough to the stage will likely catch the smell of pork wafting through the air. 

Uptown at the WP Theater, filling a room with the smell of a home-cooked dinner was less of a challenge. Audience members taking their seats to watch the off-Broadway play, Sancocho (which finished its run on April 23), were greeted with an incredibly realistic New York City kitchen replica, a tall pot filled with steam, and the smell of sofrito. 

Throughout the play, two sisters make sancocho, the show’s titular Puerto Rican stew, while processing their upbringing and father’s declining health. “Sancocho is such a healing stew and the kitchen is where we get nourishment,” says the play’s writer, Christin Eve Cato. “And that’s what these two sisters need at the moment, right? They need soul nourishment and healing.”

While the actors never actually complete the sancocho (it typically takes approximately three hours to make), they are working with real vegetables, meat, and broth. An hour before the play begins, a production assistant fills a pot with broth and water, places it over low heat on a fully-operating, onstage stove, and lets it roll – a trick that their chef consultant, Matt Campbell, suggested. As the show goes on, the sisters add different ingredients, making the room smell better and better. 

In fact, the entire script is built around the structure of making sancocho, which requires peeling, slicing, and chopping a wide range of root vegetables. “When they’re chopping and peeling these roots, these are the moments that they’re talking about their own roots,” says Cato. “Their own roots, their Taíno roots, their family roots, and they’re getting down to the root of the issues. It’s very metaphorical in that way.” 


Joan Marcus

Cato worked with Sancocho’s director, Rebecca Martínez, to find a pace between the more dramatic moments of the script with the cooking. “It was very intentional to think about where are those moments where there’s a pause needed or when one of [the characters] needs to have a pause to be able to move forward,” Martínez explains. 

For the actual, technical side of cooking – like how long it takes to peel and chop a carrot, how to prep yucca – the Sancocho cast and crew leaned on Campbell and their Puerto Rican friends and family. “[Campbell] was like, this is how we do this in the kitchen. This is how a home cook would do it. And this is, he kept referring to, ‘grandma rules.’ You don’t waste anything,” says Martínez. 

But when it came down to the components that Campbell wasn’t familiar with, like bolitas de platano, Cato called her aunt. “It was actually something that we had to move to the end of the play because they’d go in towards the end of cooking.”

One night, a producer even brought a big pot of sancocho for the cast and creative team. They ate it in the dressing room, developing their own roots to the homey dish. 

Even though the audience was unable to taste the sancocho cooking on stage, they were able to connect with the actors in a way that only food has the power to do. “Cooking is an act of love in and of itself,” says Cato. “To feed someone, to nourish someone, it is radical love. I think that’s what resonates.” So whether it’s meat pies, a rack of ribs, or a Puerto Rican stew, food on stage has one thing in common – it makes you want to go home and savor.

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