When I walked up to the Coffee the Musical booth at Coffee Fest New York earlier this month, Robert Galinsky, the show’s creator, saw my badge and said, “Hey, we’ve got your quote.” I looked at the brochure on the table and there was Daily Shot of Coffee, right under USA Today. “Coffee is the one musical that I would love to see!” Well, it wasn’t me who said it, but I could definitely get behind it.
I first heard about Coffee the Musical last year at the Coffee and Tea Festival, also in New York City. I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical. I had come to check out the coffee and… Really!? A musical about coffee?
This, though, is the real deal. Imagine your favorite coffee shop coming to life in song. The barista looks over the espresso machine and belts out a number about his hopes and dreams. I saw a preview at Coffee Fest. They had me with the opening song, Hot Black Stuff. It is both an ode to coffee and a sexually charged ballad sung by the white female love of the African American café manager. The songs and writing are clever, relevant and highly entertaining. Coffee as the medium here provides purpose and brings all of the characters together.
Getting Coffee the Musical to Broadway is an evolving process. Robert has successfully run a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign that has helped to fund the initial stages of development. He is hoping for the show to reach Broadway late 2012 or early 2013. We’ll be following along and keep you updated. For more info visit the website of Coffee the Musical. I spoke to Robert Galinsky following the preview.
Geoff: How would you describe your passion for coffee?
Robert: My passion exists through watching all these wonderful, diverse people coming in and out of cafés in New York for very different reasons. To me it’s a very theatrical setting. It may not be dramatic in the sense of there being a lot of action going on physically, but there’s so much in the dialogue and the tension and the conversations between people. Guys and girls flirting and falling in love, people doing business and entrepreneurs building social media while they’re sitting there using the place as their office. It has a real interesting dynamic because there are so many different people converging in one place for different reasons. And the other part of it is, I do love the buzz of a nice espresso.
Geoff: What was the moment that this went from an idea into something about which you said, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to make it happen”?
Robert: I can tell you the moment, I was sitting down talking to somebody I just met, Mark Schoenfeld, who wrote the musical Brooklyn. And I told him about the idea and he just lost it in front of me. He said, “Oh my gosh, you gotta go out and do that show and raise the money and make it happen.” I was just thinking, everybody loves their coffee and it would be kind of a cool musical or play to do. And Mark just lit a fire under me.
Geoff: What are some of the things that you’ve learned about coffee in putting this together?
Robert: I’ve learned that coffee is like many industries in that there’s an exploitation factor. There are workers that get exploited for the better of the CEO’s yacht or the shareholder’s vacations. It’s been a really nice eye-opener to see that there are organizations rallying around the people who may not have a voice otherwise—the laborers. I’ve learned that there are actually festivals where people are talking about the intricacies of the machines, the beans, and the process. The other really intriguing thing is what’s going on here at one of these festivals. Sixty-four baristas battling it out like a college basketball tournament, with brackets and they have their followings and they have groupies and they have their own styles. The rock stars of coffee.
Geoff: You really beautifully incorporated some of the technical issues within the industry. Could you talk about the place of those for you within telling the story? Things like what goes into a making a cup of coffee and what goes on behind the scenes in a shop.
Robert: My father owned a drugstore in the seventies in Connecticut and I used to work there. Much like a café, there were regulars that would come in. Over time my father went from just a drugstore to having a liquor store in the drugstore, then cigarettes, and lottery tickets. So you had all of these incredibly interesting, addicted characters—addicted to lottery, booze, cigarettes, prescription medications. I have grown up understanding what it is like to have a retail space or a place where people come to gather and get along or don’t get along, and then also how employees interact with them too. So in that I want this play to be appealing not just to coffee drinkers but to people that are in the business. In creating characters, I knew there needed to be a technician. There needed to be someone that knew how to fix these machines. The beautiful part of theater is translating how you fix and maintain an espresso machine into universal love or expression to the rest of the world. So that’s part of the challenge, but also fun to show how someone who is into nuts and bolts has emotions and feelings and relationships. Owning a café is pretty straightforward in terms of what an owner of a business has to deal with; different personalities, the employees, and in our case the looming vision of a larger corporation coming in and either helping or swallowing them up. So a lot of this does relate specifically to the world of coffee and the industry but it also then starts to fan out to food and beverage and then human beings.
Geoff: It’s interesting to see how you weave educating people about the world of coffee into it. That was really great.
Robert: Good, I appreciate that. Our musicians are really great. We wanted to talk about Fair Trade and the exploited workers without long speeches and long preaches. So they’re in the songs, like ‘I love the buzz,’ where the characters are singing “I don’t care if they’re exploited, I want my buzz.” That gets out the information and educates people that there is a certain level of human beings being taken advantage of, without being a preacher.
Geoff: Lastly I was wondering about bringing the process to the public as opposed to previewing it within the theater world. How do you see social media having worked for you? You seem really attuned to it.
Robert: There is a real risk to, while you’re developing something, going out there to the world with it before it’s done— for a number of reasons. Am I confident enough to show it, is somebody going to steal my ideas? But I’m of the school of sharing and taking that risk. If in the process you fall flat on your face in front of people, that’s ok. I think what’s changing because of social media and technology is, you used to only get your one shot. I think that motif is going away. There’s more than one shot now because the fame and the access to the taste-makers and enablers in this world has been democratized; everybody has the tools now. So if everyone has the tools I don’t want to continue in this old fashioned manner of ivory tower in which no one’s going to see what we’re doing until it’s done. The other thing is, there is joy and pain to the process that’s worth sharing. We’re building up our following at the same time; we’re building up our troops and our believers while we’re developing it. There’s a loyalty that will come in handy at some point down the line.