I can’t exactly say I’m surprised Escape to Margaritaville is closing, and not only because the theater was three-fourths empty when I saw it. It’s been a while since we’ve had a genuine disaster on Broadway (they’re getting few and far between these days…I think the last one was Amazing Grace back in the ’15-’16 season), but these things never completely die, and this Jukebox musical based on the songs of Jimmy Buffett is a powerful reminder of that.
Unusually for a show this bad, the book itself is not terrible, having some clever dialogue in places, surprisingly likable characters, and even a few genuinely touching moments. The problem is that it makes appallingly poor use of the Jimmy Buffett music that forms its score, and given that Buffett’s songs are what the audience really came to see, that’s enough to completely destroy the show’s appeal.
First, the songs are so awkwardly forced into the book that they make the most incompetent Jukebox Musicals of past years look positively smooth by comparison. The way they managed to fit the novelty ditty “Grapefruit-Juicy Fruit” into the story was at least creative, but the enormous amount of elaborately contrived dialogue designed to shoehorn the songs into some kind of context becomes cringe-inducing after a certain point.
Second, the show tampers with the lyrics of the songs constantly to fit them into the show’s plot. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself…Buffett himself constantly improvises on his own lyrics on the live album Feeding Frenzy, and it is considered by common consensus to be the best album of his career. But there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing that, and this show’s lyrical rewrites usually wind up sounding completely idiotic, particularly on their utterly butchered version of “A Pirate Looks at Forty”.
The third problem with the show’s score is that they often didn’t select very good Jimmy Buffett songs. Granted, most of the huge concert staples are here, but the material chosen to fill out the score simply does not represent Buffett at his best. For one thing, there’s a good bit of material from his post-1990 career, after pretty much everyone, including Buffett himself, stopped caring about his new compositions…the show even opens with one, an inane retread of earlier Buffett party songs called “License to Chill” that sounds like a 2013 Bro-Country single. Worse, the show for some reason felt the need to use “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink and I Don’t Love Jesus”, possibly the worst album-filler track of Buffett’s career and the last thing you’d expect to see in a Jukebox musical.
To be fair to the show, though, there is one truly effective musical moment—the show’s version of “He Went to Paris”. Drawn from one of Buffett’s deepest and most heartbreaking songs, the shows gives it to a character who had up until that point been portrayed as a comic buffoon, but it somehow manages not to sabotage or diminish the song’s emotional impact. It might be the only truly effective scene in the whole musical, but it does provide the show with at least one redeeming feature.
On top of everything else, a strikingly similar but much better musical opened the same season: the vastly-better-than-anyone-expected Spongebob Squarepants musical. Both shows feature scores that make heavy use of tropical ukulele sounds, both use a volcanic eruption as a major plot device, and both even have a hallucinatory tap-dance showstopper halfway through their second acts. This is mostly just bad luck on Escape to Margaritaville’s part, and the show would have failed regardless, but the presence of a musical based on a poor-quality children’s animated series that was beating this show at its own game in the same season just adds insult to injury.
Jimmy Buffett had actually had two brushes with larger-scale musical storytelling before this. The first, Off to See the Lizard, was a Concept Album designed as a companion to Buffett’s book Tales from Margaritaville: it had some filler on it, but it did contain half-a-dozen excellent songs, and is generally the last Buffett studio album that anybody cares about. The second, Don’t Stop the Carnival, was an actual 1997 stage musical based on Herman Wouk’s 1965 book of the same name, written in collaboration with Wouk himself. It disappeared pretty quickly, although it left behind an unofficial cast album of sorts with Buffett himself singing the lead role. Its failure was not exactly undeserved (as I stated earlier, by the Nineties Buffett was long past his songwriting peak, and his work on it is frankly pretty bad), but it was still more respectable than this embarrassment.
Buffett might have made a respectable theater composer in his heyday, but by the time he started actually trying, his songwriting faculties had simply declined too much for it to work. As far as I can tell, he seems to have penned the stupid new lyrics for this thing himself (at any rate, he’s the only credited lyricist), and even contributed a few mediocre new compositions to it, so we can’t really let him off the hook for this one: his involvement seems to have gone much deeper than just giving the producers permission to use his songs. Buffett is still going strong as a live act singing the classic songs he wrote at his peak, and people tend to largely ignore the existence of his newer studio albums, but he really should stop trying to conquer Broadway: it’s simply not going to happen, and it just draws attention to how much his songwriting has gone downhill, something that his fans are otherwise capable of ignoring for the most part.