Do We Need an Escape to Margaritaville (or Anywhere Else)?

Wow, this sunset really helps me forget my fears about global warming and my crippling depression!

On March 15th, Escape to Margaritaville, a jukebox musical based on the songs of Jimmy Buffett, opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre. Assuming you haven’t heard of it, I’ll save you some time: you don’t want to see it. The reviews have been almost universally negative. Apparently, there’s a bar inside the lobby of the theatre, encouraging audiences to get drunk – presumably so that they don’t realize how bad the show is, but also because drinking and enjoying one’s self is a primary fixture of the show’s philosophy.

None of this is to cast any judgments on the production itself – there are plenty of long-running off-Broadway shows such as The Imbible and Drunk Shakespeare with alcohol-centric premises. However, both shows, unlike Escape to Margaritaville, have received positive responses from critics and audiences. Like all bad productions, Margaritaville has its proponents, although their reactions have mostly centered on the “Escape” portion of the title as a defense from the critics:

“Escapism” is certainly the most accurate description of Margaritaville. Escapist art aims to distract the audience from the mundanity of daily life. It’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake; at its worst it’s generically-produced art for general audiences. In Broadway terms, this probably means fans of Jimmy Buffett’s music and tourists who want to see a Broadway musical and enjoy themselves. However, it’s this “brand of escapism” that most theatre fans dislike because it gives Broadway a bad name, perpetuating the myth that Broadway musicals are all song and dance with no substance.

However, that myth couldn’t be farther from the truth. In recent years, Broadway musicals have become increasingly removed from escapism. Many of the biggest recent Broadway hits are “socially-engaged,” meaning they respond to modern issues, such as Dear Evan Hansen (depression, suicide, social media), Come From Away (terrorism, xenophobia), The Book of Mormon (religion, racism, colonization), Hamilton (politics, American identity) and Kinky Boots (sexuality, transgenderism, man’s god-given right to wear fabulous knee-high boots).

Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones, with their Tony Awards for their performances in Dear Evan Hansen. Nice smiles, too.

To be clear, “socially-engaged” is not the same thing as political theatre – I’ve already questioned the motives behind directly political theatre in the past. Socially-engaged shows are responding to modern-day questions. The argument that critics don’t like the show simply because it isn’t “high theatre” doesn’t hold up – The Book of Mormon has a song where (SPOILER ALERT) men dance around wearing balloons shaped like penises. If that show can win nine Tony Awards and still manage to sell out houses seven years into its Broadway run, there’s no reason Escape to Margaritaville can’t be more daring. All the shows I’ve previously mentioned are ground-breaking in their own ways, either in terms of subject matter or in how they are performed. Escape to Margaritaville, with it’s tanned, “stereotypically white” main cast, seems more like an advertisement for Jimmy Buffett’s line of restaurants and casinos, which were themselves “designed for Baby Boomers.” By the way, both quotes I just used are from one of the more positive reviews for the show, which is posted on the official website of Escape to Margaritaville. Even proponents of this show admit that it’s only for one kind of audience.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that “escapist” theatre appeals to people who don’t need much of an escape from anything. Why spend good money to go see a Broadway show when you can just watch NCIS on TV? And the poor word of mouth and failure to find an audience is showing – Escape to Margaritaville is already struggling to fill up its theatre, with most of its performances in the last month selling less than 80% of the Marquis Theatre’s seats. Meanwhile, numerous socially-engaged shows are selling out shows years into their run. And while the argument could be made that socially-engaged shows are being bolstered by younger audiences who are more involved in social issues, The Broadway League reports that most theatregoers are over the age of 40. These audiences aren’t coming to see Escape to Margaritaville, either.

Besides the financial implications, the changing attitude towards entertainment reflects a cultural shift toward addressing widespread societal issues. Instead of shoving our problems to the side and forgetting about them, theatre artists are entwining societal issues into productions that are enjoyable, profitable, and beneficial to the audience, all at once – without the preachiness that often plagues overtly political theatre.

Although some audience members might bemoan the days when Broadway was less about having a “message” and more about having “fun,” the numbers indicate that socially-engaged shows are the ones taking over. Escapist shows, like Escape to Margaritaville, have a diminishing place in a world where confronting our problems, instead of escaping them, is slowly becoming the norm.

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