“Mamma Mia.” “Jersey Boys.” “American Idiot.” “On Your Feet.” “Beautiful.” (Not to mention, the upcoming Donna Summer musical, “Summer”). You know the type: a jukebox musical. When reading the previous titles and the phrase “jukebox musical” you either groaned and or cheered. This subgenre of musical theater is incredibly polarizing; people either love them or hate them. For the most part, traditional musical theater snobs loathe them, and diehard fans of the bands/artists go nuts for them.
The same can be said of Jimmy Buffett’s new musical (I never thought I would write those words), “Escape to Margaritaville,” now playing at the Marquis Theatre. Never have I felt so out of my element as I did while watching this musical — it felt like I was in a different country like the musical was in another language. The audience was entirely made up of Jimmy Buffett fans, or “Parrotheads” as they call themselves, who knew the words to every song.
Not only did they know the words, but they sang along (loudly). They knew some choreography. They knew several call and responses, like when to scream “salt.” I’m still not entirely sure what was going on. Many even came in costume, complete with Hawaiian shirts and leis. It’s hard to imagine, but these Parrotheads seemed more enthusiastic than ABBA lovers at “Mamma Mia,” or the dancing Este-fans at the Marquis Theatre’s previous tenet, “On Your Feet.”
The very loosely formed plot of the musical follows the soon-to-be-married Tammy (Lisa Howard) and the single scientist Rachel (Alison Luff) on a tropical vacation where they meet and of course fall in love with the bartender, Brick (Eric Petersen) and a guitar playing bar employee named Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan). Tully acts as our Jimmy Buffett stand-in, eventually signing a record deal, being discovered, and even winning a Grammy.
But certainly, no one goes to see “Escape to Margaritaville” for the plot. Everyone is there to hear the songs they love. This is made most clear in the playbill, where all the songs are not listed by act, scene, or character, but simply alphabetically, basically just a list of Buffett’s greatest hits; it resembles a set list of a concert more than an outline for a musical. Which is telling, since “Escape to Margaritaville” often feels more like a concert than a musical.
But the relaxed, concert-like nature of the musical is not where the largest issues lie — after all, “Escape to Margaritaville” is advertised as “not just a musical, it’s a lifestyle.” The book of the musical by Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley is certainly a corny mess. Throughout the show, there are small, repetitious, and random references that only make sense later when you realize they were lifted from a verse of a song. Perhaps the worst example is when Tully says “I’m sad” and Brick replies, “want some cake?” which immediately segues into the lyric “nibblin’ on some sponge cake, watching the sun bake.”
None of the actors are safe from this hackneyed style of writing. To their credit, they all seem to be trying to make the best with what they have been given. That being said, no one stood out as an exception or especially worthy of praise.
But by far the biggest problem in the piece comes in the form of Buffett’s lyrics, which to a non-Parrothead feel extremely dated, eerily reminiscent of the 1980s sexism that is no longer cute or acceptable. Throughout the musical, lyrics made fun of Mexico, disability, Spanish pronunciation, Judaism, sexual assault, drug use, Caribbean cultures and dialects, vegetarians, and most obviously, alcoholism (and this is just a list of the most memorable problematic lyrics).
Unsurprisingly, the audience of Parrotheads are not concerned with the often offensive lyrics, and just go on loudly singing from their seats, frozen daiquiri in hand. It is also unsurprising that the audience has a very homogenous demographic: older white people. Jimmy Buffett’s sexism-enriched lyrics do not appeal to a younger fan base, nor does it seem that he has garnered a new generation of devotees since his peak in the 80s and 90s.
As far as the whiteness of the audience, the musical even made a self-referential joke about the group Tully’s (aka Buffett’s) music appeals to most. His black male music producer says “a skinny guy in flips flops, playing acoustic guitar, singing about the beach — white people will love it.” Oddly, the audience found this hilarious, potentially unaware that their lack of diversity was being made fun of. The cast of the show was equally white, except for the hotel/bar owner Marley (Rema Webb) and her dishwasher Jamal (Andre War), both of whom had Caribbean dialect written in broken English. The ensemble too was almost entirely white, except for a few token actors of color to give the piece a supposed diversity.
All this being said, it (sadly) does not matter that the musical is not well-written, has problematic lyrics, is very white, and has some horribly crafted jokes. “Escape to Margaritaville” is critic-proof; this musical has a very clear fan base, the Parrotheads, and they do not care if it is a quality piece of musical theater. After all, they are there for the experience, the “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” lifestyle.