The first time Jimmy Buffett saw a rehearsal of Escape to Margaritaville, the new musical based on his songs, it was pretty obvious that he was having a good time. “He was smiling and laughing,” recalls Greg Garcia, co-writer of the musical’s book, who was sitting just in front of Buffett. “I kept looking back at him, and he was just loving it. Afterward, I go, ‘That’s the first Jimmy Buffett concert that you’ve ever been to, isn’t it?’ And he looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Yeah, man! I see what the fuss is all about!’”
Of course, Escape to Margaritaville isn’t exactly a Jimmy Buffett concert. But its creators say that it does have a tropical party vibe similar to the festive mood at Buffett’s rollicking live shows. Like other so-called jukebox musicals, it takes a set of popular songs and constructs a story around them. Just as Mamma Mia! concocted a plot to connect the hits of Abba, this new show celebrates Buffett’s greatest hits while telling a romantic-comedic story—about a character who’s a bit like Buffett in his younger days as a busker singing songs on the beach.
What’s the secret to making a jukebox musical feel more like a real musical, and not just a string of hits tunes? “Every song has to feel inevitable and necessary to the story,” says Margaritaville director, Christopher Ashley. “Or it has to be such a pleasurable left turn that you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming, but I’m so happy about how they used that song.’ Nothing can ever feel shoehorned.”
Ashley (who won the Tony Award in June for best direction of a musical, for his work on Come From Away) is the artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego, which staged the first production of Escape to Margaritaville in May. After short runs in New Orleans and Houston, it plays Chicago’s Oriental Theatre November 9 through December 2 before heading on to Broadway in February.
San Diego Union-Tribune critic James Hebert wrote that the show “delivers just about every bit of what the phrase ‘Jimmy Buffett musical’ promises, from the splashy colors to the steel-drum beats to the palm-fronded beach bar slinging fruity cocktails.” But he also noted that the musical smartly taps into “the undercurrent of wistfulness and regret that runs through even some of Buffett’s more upbeat story-songs.”
The depth of those songs attracted Garcia and co-writer Mike O’Malley. The Emmy Award-winning Garcia, creator of television shows such as the new TBS series The Guest Book, says he grew up listening to Buffett’s records. “I was always drawn to songs that told stories,” he says. “Jimmy’s songs, a lot of them tell stories. They have characters within them. Certainly, some of them also have a humorous vibe.” Garcia became something of a Parrothead, as Buffett fans are known, and Buffett later became a fan of Garcia’s NBC series My Name Is Earl.
O’Malley—who starred in Garcia’s sitcom Yes, Dear from 2000 to 2006 and is now in his fourth season as creator and executive producer of the Starz series Survivor’s Remorse — says listeners are attracted by the “spirit of fun” in Buffett’s songs. “But there’s also this real depth in other parts of his songs,” O’Malley observes. Buffett has an “ability to write songs about what people yearn for, what they regret in their own behavior, and what they strive for in friendships and relationships,” he says.
When Garcia and O’Malley started working on a script three years ago, they knew they’d have to include certain Buffett hits. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure out which ones have to be in it,” Garcia says. “Jimmy says there are ten songs he plays or gets killed.” Those include “Come Monday,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and, of course, Buffett’s breakthrough hit from 1977, “Margaritaville.” As Garcia explains, “It was pretty easy to compile the list. But then what do you do? You’ve got this big list of songs. How do you get them in? The trick for us was, we listened to the songs and we started creating characters based on the songs.”
The central character they came up with is Tully, a bartender and singer at an island resort (played by Paul Alexander Nolan, the charismatic star of Broadway shows, including 2016’s Bright Star). “A guy who lives on the beach,” Garcia says. “A carefree, fun-loving guy. He has relationships that last a week. But then somebody comes into his life that’s a little bit more of a challenge.”
That somebody is Rachel, played by Alison Luff, who appeared in the Broadway revival of Les Misérables in 2016. She’s “an ecological scientist who has a real career drive, and is not interested in hanging out and getting drunk,” Ashley says, praising Luff for helping to shape the role she plays. “We created her as the un-Jimmy Buffett character.” And when these two characters fall in love, it pushes them to rethink their attitudes about life.
“When I look at the TV shows that I do, there’s a theme of personal growth,” Garcia relates. “My Name Is Earl was about a guy who wanted to be a better person. And this is a show where you watch these two people help each other become better.”
Buffett’s songs take on new meanings when we see these characters singing them. Now, they’re stories about these people. “‘Margaritaville’ is a great song if you’re not the person singing it,” O’Malley muses. “There’s great regret and sadness in that song. How did this woman get away? What did I do in terms of the choices that I made that caused me to be sitting here, wasting away in Margaritaville? When you put yourself in the point of view of a character singing that song, there can be a different emotion than when you’re just shouting it to the rooftops.”
Parrotheads didn’t necessarily shout to the rooftops, but many sang along and even danced during performances of Escape to Margaritaville at La Jolla Playhouse. “I had no idea what it was going to be like to be in the same room with that many Parrotheads,” admits Ashley. “They bring this total committed party energy to the show.”
In addition to Buffett’s vibrant music, the show draws energy from the choreography of Kelly Devine, who worked with Ashley on the Tony-winning Broadway show Come From Away, and earned a Tony nomination herself. “The dance vocabulary is surprising and athletic and sexy and rock ‘n’ roll and imaginative,” Ashley says. “We have real triple threats—people who really can act, really can sing, and really can dance.”
The show’s creators often talked with Buffett, seeking his advice and feedback. Garcia says it’s been a “real thrill” to watch Buffett whenever he lights up with joy during a performance. “When you sit down to write the Jimmy Buffett musical—I’ll be honest with you — there’s really only one audience member I care about at the end of the day,” he says. “And it’s Jimmy Buffett.”
For tickets to the Chicago enagement of Escape to Margaritaville, click here.