Music by VICE

Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Musical Finds the Capitalist Hell in Paradise

The Broadway show is a very capitalist idea of utopia. This is Jimmy Buffett's genius.

by Nick Murray
Jun 5 2018, 4:45pm

All photos courtesy Escape to Margaritaville

Will it count as service journalism if I begin by explaining where to find the only free tequila in Times Square? I discovered this sweet spring on a recent weeknight, in the third floor lobby of the Marquis Marriott on Broadway and 45th. There, in the northeast corner, hides a conference room that has been converted into a small, secret Tiki Bar, its haphazard arrangement of fake bambo evoking a sort of white collar bivouac where well-off theatergoers can temporarily hide from the stressful world around them. A special ticket is required for entry, but with no one at the door, I simply walked in, told the bartender I was enjoying the show, and left with a commemorative cup filled with bottom-shelf liquor. I’d have kept the cup, too, if only the words “Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville” weren't emblazoned across the front.

Buffett, I figure, can afford a few drinks. Through Margaritaville Holdings, he owns close to 50 restaurants, a few retail stores, a couple of casinos and 11 resorts and hotels. He sells patio furniture at Bed Bath & Beyond and coconut shrimp in the frozen food aisle of your local grocery store. His next project is Latitude, a retirement community where fans “can live the Margaritaville lifestyle every day.” You might say that Buffett exemplifies the American Dream, in that he started out a musician and ended up a landlord. In making this transition, he has shown, beyond a doubt, that gap between lazy-fare music to laissez faire economics is surprisingly small.

Escape to Margaritaville, a jukebox musical built from his tunes, combines a little bit of both, telling the story of a half-dozen misfits who seek love and alcohol at a fictional Margaritaville on an unnamed island in the Caribbean. Tully, the fictional Margaritaville’s chief entertainer, is Escape’s lead misfit, a loose Buffett surrogate who lacks the drive—and the tolerance for cold weather—that he needs to get famous on the mainland. Appropriately, the show opens with him avoiding work. "I pay you to get my hotel guests dancing and drinking!" the manager orders, with meta-theatrical flair, in an extra-theatrical Jamaican accent. In one sense, Escape to Margaritaville is an ode to hotels that’s being staged inside one, right there on the Marriott Marquis’s third floor. The tequila should continue flowing through November, when the show is scheduled to end its run.

Tully meets his match when a scientist named Rachel comes to Margaritaville for a week-long bachelorette getaway with her best friend Tammy. Rachel—who lists her heroes as Jane Goodall, Marie Curie and Sheryl Sandburg—is waiting for a call from a venture capitalist who may want to invest in her research, which involves using potatoes to create green electricity.

Her trouble begins when she learns that there’s no cell service anywhere on the island—except at the top of the volcano a day’s hike from the resort. Tully doesn’t understand why she’s stressed, and she doesn’t understand why he can’t understand, but when two people have this little in common, you know they're bound to fall in love.

Their courtship takes place as the group climbs the volcano in search of reception, singing Jimmy Buffett songs all the way up. They’re accompanied by Brick, the Margaritaville bartender, and he and Tammy hit it off too. Brick introduces the show’s most clever device: As the foursome explore the terrain, he’s haunted by the ghosts of 25 insurance salesmen who were buried under a layer of lava deposited by the last eruption. The ghosts appear during his acid flashbacks. A true return of the repressed, they bear the unholy spirit of the corporate world that everyone in Margaritaville is determined to avoid.

This battle between work and leisure is at the center of the musical, the main tension on an island that’s supposed to have none. When Brick eventually defeats the insurance salesmen in a Rockettes-esque kick-line dance-battle, we’re given the impression that chill has won and work has been vanquished. Even Rachel comes to learn the power of relaxation: Before the end of the first act, she celebrates enlightenment by hitting a bottle of rum and saying "It's five o'clock somewhere!” in the direction of the crowd. The crowd, at least at the show I attended, gave a proud “aww,” then joined her in singing the Jimmy Buffett song she happened to have quoted. We couldn’t join her on the island, but we could at least pretend it was karaoke night in the Latitude rec room. I’ve always been suspicious of how easily Buffett claims victory over work, but being in that crowd made me want to root for him. If he could claim victory—if even Rachel could claim victory—then maybe someday we could do it too.

Then again, it’s also songs like “Five O’Clock Somewhere” that make me suspicious. A Number One country hit in 2003, the record opens with a familiar country setup: a guy hates his job and his boss, and he hasn't had a day off in over a year. When Johnny Paycheck was in this situation, he told the boss to take this job and shove it. The German country star Gunter Gabriel sang “Hey boss, ich brauch mehr geld”—I need more money. Buffett’s protagonist is less confrontational. He slips out of the office, drinks some rum, imagines how sweet it’d be to stay in a place like Margaritaville, then gets some sleep and returns to the work the next morning. It’s a good song, but I’m always left wondering if what it describes really constitutes escape. By going back to the office, doesn’t he just defer the possibility of a true escape for another day? And if so, what would a true escape actually look like?

It’s this question that Buffett’s music, his restaurants and casinos try so hard to avoid. In the world of Margaritaville, escape is purely negative—the absence of work, and not much more. As such, its form and its possibilities are defined by work. It can even come to complement work, to be part of the work cycle. An escape to Margaritaville may not be productive labor, like filling out a spreadsheet, but it may be reproductive, encouraging vacationers to let go of a little misery and recharge for the following Monday. Escape is granted only on the condition of return.

This return becomes the subject of Escape to Margaritaville’s second act, which is set into motion when the volcano erupts. The eruption is to Margaritaville what the destruction of the Second Temple was to Judaism. Rachel and Tammy have already returned to Ohio, and now the rest of the island’s slackers are forced to follow them, flying a propeller plane across the sea and north to the cold Midwest. So begins the Margaritaville diaspora. The group never hits customs, or Homeland Security, but this fits with the show’s fantastical geography. We are repeatedly told that the island is “in the middle of nowhere,” perhaps because naming an actual place would make visible the colonial legacy on which Caribbean resort culture is founded.

The plane lands just in time for Tammy’s rehearsal dinner. Her fiancé, unaware that he’s a character in a Jimmy Buffett musical, has just banned her from eating cheeseburgers, inadvertently setting up Brick to sing “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” and swoop Tammy off her feet. This is precisely what happens. Wedding cancelled.

After Brick and Tammy two run off together, Tully tries to woo Rachel with a Jimmy Buffett song of his own. Sated by the cheeseburgers, she has the good sense to reject him cold. Their lifestyles are just too different, she explains. Rachel leaves the bar, but before Tully can feel down, an entertainment lawyer who overheard the performances steps forward and makes him an offer. The lawyer thinks that Tully could be a big star—he could sell songs about his experiences relaxing in tropical sands. It would be easy money. “White people love that kind of shit," the lawyer says, nodding in the direction of the crowd.

A movie-style montage confirms his hypothesis. We see Tully perform at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe, then at the Grammys. Rachel realizes he's a star when her Amazon-linked home soundsystem is able to play his music on cue. "Alexa knows who he is?” she asks, and, indeed, his music can now be summoned via Silicon Valley algorithm. The Sheryl Sandburg fan is impressed. She begins to rethink her decision in the bar.

Thus the stage is set for the final scene, a return to the holy land in which a new Margaritaville has been constructed and Tully is booked to return as headliner. In the audience stands an unexpected guest: Rachel, who explains after the show that she’s returned to the island because its volcanic ash provides the minerals she needs to get her potatoes to produce electricity. Both characters, in different ways, have learned to commodify their escape. Where Tully has learned to package the island affect into sellable pop songs, Rachel has figured out how to turn the island itself into a kind of fuel. They rekindle their romance and get married right there at the hotel.

It’s supposed to be a happy ending, and in a way, it is. The characters have figured out how to bridge the gap between the job and the vacation. All that’s missing is Rachel’s Medium post about the joys of working remotely.

Still, I felt the same ambivalence at the end of Escape to Margaritaville that I feel when I hear “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” They may have bridged the gap between job and vacation, but the result seems less like reconciliation than colonization. With Rachel’s research, capital can quite literally transform the island into an energy source for the global economy. Through Tully’s music, it can sell the feeling of a tropical vacation to people streaming music on Amazon while they work at their desks. They’ll both get to spend more time at Margaritaville, but their relationship to the resort has been irreversibly altered

The whole thing amounts to a very capitalist idea of utopia. This is Jimmy Buffett’s genius: through his music and properties, he’s created a world in which work has been eliminated but consumption continues unabated—even increases. The vision has proved profitable. Ventures like the Margaritaville Bed Bath & Beyond collection prefabricate a set of items that are needed for a proper, Buffett-style escape, but, more than that, they prefabricate our understanding of escape itself, creating the desire for a specific form of sun-baked lounging and helping us forget what else might be possible.

This question—what else might be possible—lurks underneath Escape to Margaritaville, beyond the reach of even the island’s 25 corporate ghosts. It’s worth excavating. What if the opposite of work isn’t idleness, vegetative lounging, but something creative, perhaps a form of solidarity or way of being together? This question is too important to leave to Jimmy Buffett, though of course we appreciate both his guidance and libations. It’s a question that’s too important, I think, to leave to anyone. Rather, it’s something that we try to think through and experiment on together—particularly if we still hope to someday escape for real, saying goodbye not just to our own crummy jobs but to the whole system of wage-labor and exploitation and Margaritaville retreats.

In Broadway show, actors without speaking roles often play multiple parts, reappearing in the background of multiple scenes set at different locales. In Escape to Margaritaville, this created an odd ambiguity, as the same cast members who would dance as vacationers at one moment would return as hotel staff in the next. They even play the ghosts, making the specter of corporate feel especially close. By the end of the first act, it became hard to keep track of the different guises. Who was working, and who was enjoying time off? The answer—even the difference—was often unclear.

Escape to Margaritaville runs on Broadway until July 1. Get tickets here.

Nick Murray is wasting away on Twitter.