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Not Everyone's Cup Of Latte

August 7, 2007

Last week, I wrote about Starbucks' art initiative, Avante-Grande, an annual exhibition of art work by Starbucks' baristas. I expressed some reservations about the endeavor, but basically I came down on the positive side.

That evening, I went to see Insignificant Others, a new musical by L. Jay Kuo, which is currently running at Zeum. The musical concerns five friends from Cleveland in their early 20s who move to San Francisco and endure various romantic mishaps including two love triangles (one straight, one gay,) and an ill-advised encounter with a pre-op transsexual. One of the musical's three plot strands (and its comic climax) takes place in a Starbucks branch in downtown San Francisco.

Over the course of several scenes, we meet a group of Starbucks baristas whose military approach to making coffee is almost enough to make us stop frequenting the coffee giant ever again. Dressed in green berets to match their green aprons and brandishing silver coffee mugs, the baristas frog-march in formation about the stage during their numbers. The head barista is a stern frau with a German accent.

Kuo's point about Starbucks isn't very original -- most people think the company is taking over the world. But what's interesting about it is the absurdity of the scenarios, which become increasingly ridiculous as the plot evolves. During their first scene, the baristas ask the world to "buy your coffee at Starbucks!" But by the end of the musical, they're asking us to do much more via partnerships with such consumer behemoths as Blockbuster Video, Safeway and Jiffy Lube. If "Buy your groceries at Starbucks!" sounds strange, "Get a tune-up at Starbucks!" sounds even more so.

The Starbucks input into Kuo's musical naturally made me think about the larger implications of the company's present foray into the art world. While on the one hand it's great that the oprganization is using its power to promote the creative interests of its employees, does the coffee company's involvement in yet another branch of cultural life simply feed its hunger to influence (and perhaps ultimately control) the whole gamut of cultural experiences in our lives from the music we listen to to the books we read to the exhibitions we attend?

Kuo's satire hits home. While the musical has its issues (you can read about it in more detail in my Stage column in SF Weekly starting tomorrow,) it's quite witty in many ways. The high-stepping Starbucks baristas are one of the best things in the show.


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