NEW YORK - There are real pies made for the audience in the Tooting Arts Club's production of "Sweeney Todd." And if you know anything at all about the musical, that sentence should make you feel equal parts giddy and revolted. The audience walks into a theater that has been fitted out to look like Harrington's, an ancient, real meat pie shop in London, with dingy walls, cafeteria-style seating and a sign that advertises "Jellied eels no licker." You'll be handed beer or wine, and a metal plate of truffle-scented mashed potato and pie, either vegetarian or meat.
If you've seen a production of the show, you're probably wondering about the meat. If you haven't, well, it has been 38 years since "Sweeney Todd" debuted, so the statute of limitations for spoilers has long expired. "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," as the famous opening number goes: He's a murderous barber seeking revenge against the crooked judge who stole his wife and daughter. He opens a barbershop above a pie shop whose proprietor, Mrs. Lovett, has fallen into hard times due to the price of meat. But when Todd begins giving very close neck shaves, if you catch my drift, Mrs. Lovett finds a convenient way to dispose of his evidence and solve her restaurant supply-chain problem, soon bringing customers in droves for the best pies in London. And that is why the idea of serving the audience meat pies - really delicious ones, too - is the best joke in theater right now.
What's in the pies? As the lyrics to one of the musical's most famous songs goes, a priest, a poet, a lawyer, and of course, a shepherd. These were not ingredients typically in former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses's wheelhouse, so when he was invited to make pies for the show, he decided to use chicken - another joke.
"When people eat alligator or rattlesnake" - or, uh, other exotic meats - "they always say, 'It tastes like chicken,' " said Yosses, who dresses up in a Harrington's costume apron to serve theatergoers most nights. "They're always asking if they should expect to find fingernails in the pie."
He made pies for the president, but this opportunity has opened the curtains to a new phase in his career.
"I feel very much a part of the production. But I think my pies feel more a part of the production," Yosses said. "They're almost like a character in the play."
"Sweeney Todd" isn't the only New York production whetting audience's appetites. "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," a Broadway musical adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" that's getting plenty of Tony buzz, hands out Russian dumplings. "Waitress," the Sara Bareilles-penned Broadway musical about Jenna, a baker who is lonely in her marriage, features pies onstage and off, and the first words sung in the show are "Sugar, butter, flour."
But don't call it dinner theater, a phrase that conjures up visions of banquet-hall chicken cutlets and 1970s kitsch. All of the food is thematically a part of the show, which keeps it from being a gimmick.
"I don't know if there is a dinner theater movement, but I would say there is a larger movement for performance to be as enveloping and palpable as possible," said "The Great Comet" director Rachel Chavkin. "Food is just an extension of that."
Just like any other part of a show, food requires a lot of direction and staging. Chavkin and producers taste-tested 20 dumplings at Russian Samovar before they selected the restaurant's potato-and-onion-filled winner as the one cast members would hand out in the beginning of "The Great Comet." Baked in a flaky pastry that comes from a family recipe, they are technically pirozhki, but the cast refers to them as pierogi, says Roman Gambourg, a partner in the restaurant and a co-producer of the show. Previous iterations of the show served more traditional pierogi, along with black bread and vodka - all of which were eliminated due to mess. (The vodka, especially, if people overindulged: "I remember one extraordinary show where, very, very quietly and respectfully, I watched a woman getting sick," Chavkin said. "She vomited into her handbag.")
But when it moved into the Imperial Theatre, "The Great Comet" needed to make sure audience members could eat their dumpling without getting grease on their hands and, in turn, on the seats.
"The idea was to get the dough that doesn't leave fat particles on your hand and has a handle to raise it out of the box," Gambourg said. The "handle" is a knot of dough at the top.
It was a similar consideration at "Waitress," where pies can be purchased for $10, and eaten during the show. Actual waitresses, costumed just like characters in the musical, walk the aisles of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre hawking jarred pies in four flavors, including Key lime and salted caramel, and many audience members find them hard to resist. The theater sells about 1,600 a week, and sometimes, if they are especially popular before the show, the concession stand will call in a new order before intermission. Theatergoers might be influenced by a subtle piece of stagecraft: Shortly before the beginning of every show, pie consultant Stacy Donnelly (yes, that's her real job title) dumps an excessive amount of cinnamon and nutmeg on a store-bought pie and pops it into a hidden oven in the lobby. It's not long before the room fills with the scent.
"Waitress" initially wanted to sell slices of pies that look just like Jenna's, but there was concern that they could be messy. Instead, Donnelly devised a jarred pie, which audience members can stash in their bags if they can't finish the treat. Her bakery, Cute as Cake, bakes the cakes in the jars, which come with a miniature plastic spoon, selected because it could silently scrape up the last few morsels of Key lime from the sides of the jar without clacking around and distracting other audience members - or worse, the actors.
Audience members "feel like they're part of the diner," said Donnelly, who contributed to a forthcoming "Waitress" cookbook. "When you're having the pies they're talking about, it makes it a different experience. It's not just something you grabbed at concessions."
Chefs who land a role in these shows are ready for the spotlight.
"Restaurants are kind of theater in themselves, more and more, with an elaborate set and a certain protocol for the service," said Yosses, who bakes as many as 90 pies per show. Theater is "not so different from the restaurant world. Punctuality is very important."
And making and transporting food for the theater is a production in itself. At Russian Samovar, the prep begins every morning around 10, when cooks will start to shape and fill 300 dumplings - 600 on days when there are two shows. Later that day, they'll be baked, stuffed into tiny cardboard boxes, and transported to the theater in thermal bags that keep them warm, between 15 and 30 minutes before the show begins. The immersive theatrical experience, starring Josh Groban, opens with actors tossing the boxes to guests who want a snack.
"It's pretty joyous moment," ensemble member Azudi Onyejekwe said. "We scream, 'Who wants a dumpling?' . . . People are sort of like, 'Me, me, me!' "
Because of the show's unique scenic design - some audience members sit on the stage and the action is spread throughout the theater, even on the mezzanine - every section has an opportunity to get the snack. The cast throws them like they're using a T-shirt gun at a baseball game. "People are pulling out catches that would make Odell Beckham [Jr.] go 'Wow,'" Onyejekwe said. But it also tells them what kind of a show "The Great Comet" will be.
"Since the show itself is so much more inclusive in terms of the audience literally being a part of the action every night, there's something so beautiful about the fact that we're welcoming them into the space with food," Onyejekwe said.
It's also a way that theater can engage all of the senses - and compete with other art forms for patrons' entertainment dollars, especially as Netflix and restaurants spread peoples' attention spans thin.
"I think it is absolutely a reaction to the increasing virtualization of our world," Chavkin said. "When people come to a live event, they want it to be live in every sense. They're looking for as visceral and intimate and personal an experience as possible."
Yosses thinks that more artists of all types - visual, musical, conceptual - will begin to experiment with serving food for their art. Some, such as performance artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, have long incorporated it into their work.
And Yosses has already seen the effect it has on guests at the Barrow Street Theatre. When they realize they're about to eat a facsimile of Mrs. Lovett's pies, they "come in with their libretto already prepared," he said. Most will sing a line from "A Little Priest." Others will pepper him with jokes.
"Someone came in, and we served them their pie, and they said, 'Is this last night's audience?' " Yosses said. "I liked that."
The pies have been getting rave reviews from the audience. But how do they compare to Mrs. Lovett's? "I feel like [Mrs. Lovett] would use more seasoning, and maybe it would be chewier," said audience member Tim Federle, 36. "But I'm not an expert on human flesh."
SWEENEY TODD VEGETABLE PIE
8 servings (makes one 9-inch double-crust pie)
Lots of simply sauteed vegetables are packed into a flaky, rich butter crust; this is one of the pie options served in individual-size portions along with some tickets at the New York production of "Sweeney Todd."
Some of the loose filling may tumble out in a heap once you begin cutting slices of the pie; just scoop it up and serve along with each portion.
You'll need pie weights (or dried beans or rice) for blind-baking the crust.
MAKE AHEAD: The pie crust dough needs to be refrigerated for 2 hours. The vegetable mixture can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated a day or two in advance. The finished pie can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, then warm through in a 200-degree oven before serving.
Cheddar, or orange, cauliflower is a golden-yellow color instead of white but it tastes the same as regular cauliflower.
Adapted from pastry chef Bill Yosses, culinary consultant to the current New York production of "Sweeney Todd."
For the crust
• 20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
• 3 cups flour, plus more as needed
• 2 teaspoons salt, plus more for the egg wash
• 6 tablespoons cold water, plus more for the egg wash
• 1 large egg, beaten
For the filling
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1 medium onion, cut into small dice
• 2 medium carrots, scrubbed well, then trimmed and sliced or diced
• 2 ribs celery, cut into thin slices
• 3 fresh Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), peeled and diced (may substitute 2 ounces drained, chopped hearts of palm)
• 1 to 2 ounces mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and coarsely chopped (at least 1 cup)
• 1 bay leaf
• 7 ounces cheddar cauliflower, cut into small pieces (2 cups; see headnote; may substitute regular white cauliflower)
• 4 1/2 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half or coarsely chopped (at least 1 cup)
• 3 or 4 ounces fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into small dice (at least 1 cup)
• Freshly ground black pepper
For the crust: Cut butter into pea-size pieces; freeze them for 10 minutes or until firm.
Meanwhile, combine the 3 cups of flour and the 2 teaspoons of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer. On low speed, gradually add the butter, making sure it all stays in the bowl and becomes evenly coated with the flour. Add the cold water down the inside of the bowl (on low speed), beating just until clumps of dough form (do not wait for it to come into a ball).
Lightly flour your clean hands, then transfer the dough to a sheet of plastic wrap. Gather the dough together into 2 disks, one slightly larger than the other; you'll see visible bits of butter. Wrap each one in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add onion, carrots and celery, Jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms and bay leaf. Cook for about 8 minutes or until just softened, stirring occasionally, then add the cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and green beans, stirring to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and cook for 12 minutes, then transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, spreading out the mixture so it can cool. Discard the bay leaf.
When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly flour a work surface.
Unwrap and roll out the larger disk of dough to an 11-inch round that's about 1/4-inch thick. Some pieces of butter should be barely visible. Transfer it to a 9-inch pie plate and fit it in so there's some overhang around the edges. Cut away any excess and reserve to add to the remaining dough for the top of the pie.
Cover the bottom pie crust dough in its pie plate with aluminum foil directly on its surface, and then add pie weights. Bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes, then remove the foil.
While the bottom crust is in the oven, unwrap and roll out the remaining disk of dough (along with any extra bits from the first roll), to a round that's about 10 inches wide and 1/4-inch thick.
Transfer the partially baked pie shell to the counter top; fill with the cooled vegetable mixture, compacting it with your hands. Add a pinch of salt to the beaten egg and use that mixture to brush the edges of the bottom crust. Fit the top crust dough over the pie, pinching or crimping to seal the edges. Use the rest of the egg mixture to brush the entire top crust of the pie. Use a fork to poke several holes or a sharp knife to make several air vents in the top crust's surface. Bake (middle rack) for about 40 minutes, until golden brown.
Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition | Per serving: 530 calories, 8 g protein, 44 g carbohydrates, 36 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
JENNA'S DEVIL'S FOOD CHOCOLATE OASIS PIE
8 to 10 servings (makes one 9 1/2 -inch pie)
The flavors of this retro beauty open themselves one by one, like chapters in a book: bittersweet chocolate, strawberry (fresh and via preserves), balsamic vinegar and whipped cream.
MAKE AHEAD: The chocolate pastry cream-filled crust needs to be refrigerated for at least 6 hours. If you're going to make the pie a day in advance, place plastic wrap directly on the chocolate filling and top with the whipped cream and chocolate-coated strawberries just before serving.
Adapted from "Sugar, Butter, Flour: The Waitress Pie Book," by Jenna Hunterson (Penguin, 2017); recipe by Sheri Castle.
For the crust
• 1 3/4 cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (about 36 cookies, or 6 1/2 ounces from one 9-ounce package)
• 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more as needed
For the filling
• 1/2 cup strawberry preserves
• 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
• 2/3 cup granulated sugar
• 1/4 cup cornstarch
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 4 large egg yolks
• 3 cups whole milk
• 7 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the strawberries
• 8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
• heaping tablespoon vegetable shortening
• 10 to 16 large fresh strawberries, hulled
For the topping
• 1 cup heavy cream, chilled
• 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
• 1/3 cup crushed fresh strawberries (2 1/2 ounces)
For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Toss together the crumbs and butter in a medium bowl until evenly moistened, then press into the bottom and up the sides of a 9 1/2-inch deep-dish pie pan. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes to firm up the butter. Bake (middle rack) for about 10 minutes, or until just set and fragrant. Place on a wire rack to cool to room temperature.
For the filling: Stir together the preserves and balsamic vinegar in a small bowl. Spread over the bottom of the cooled crust, then return the crust to the refrigerator.
Whisk together the granulated sugar, cornstarch, salt and egg yolks in a large, heavy saucepan. While whisking continuously, add the milk in a slow, steady stream over medium heat. Bring barely to a boil, whisking, then reduce the heat and cook, still whisking, for 1 minute, or until the filling is quite thick. Remove from the heat; add the chocolate, butter and vanilla extract, stirring to form a smooth chocolate pastry cream filling.
Pass it through a fine-mesh strainer into a mixing bowl, using a rubber spatula to press it through. Press a piece of buttered parchment paper directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Let cool to room temperature and then pour into the refrigerated crust. Press a sheet of plastic wrap over the surface of the filling (no need to butter it), then refrigerate for at least 6 hours or until fully set.
For the strawberries: Combine the chocolate chips and shortening in a medium glass bowl. Microwave on MEDIUM (50-percent power) in 30-second intervals until the chips begin to lose their shape. Stir until melted and smooth.
Rinse the berries and blot dry on paper towels. Working with one at a time, hold each strawberry by the top and dip the fruit in the melted chocolate, placing it on a plate lined with a sheet of parchment or wax paper as you work. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, or until the chocolate hardens. (If the berries are large, 10 will be a better fit than 16 total.)
For the topping: Combine the heavy cream and confectioners' sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on low, then medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Fold in (by hand) the crushed strawberries.
Just before serving, spread the topping over the pie (remembering to remove any plastic wrap first from the chocolate filling). Arrange the chocolate-covered strawberries on top.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10, with 10 coated strawberries): 610 calories, 8 g protein, 67 g carbohydrates, 39 g fat, 17 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 43 g sugar