'Escape to Margaritaville': Inside Jimmy Buffett's Big Broadway Debut

Singer-songwriter and his collaborators on how they crafted a new musical around his timeless hits, catering to theater fans and Parrotheads alike

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'Escape to Margaritaville': Inside Jimmy Buffett's Big Broadway Debut

More than 40 years later, Jimmy Buffett can still recall the moment he wrote "Margaritaville." Buffett had played a show in Austin and was on his way back home to Key West. "It was a hot day and I had a couple of margaritas," he recalls. "I was a bit hung over, but I started writing the song on my guitar case at the Austin airport. It was written in five minutes. I wasn't wasting away – I was working my ass off. I thought, 'This is a pretty good song.'"

In the decades since, that song and its title have become integral to Buffett's empire; it's the name of his restaurant chain and hotels, his former indie record label, and his retirement-community developments. Many, including former Monkee Michael Nesmith, have tried turning the tune – about a guy dealing with heartbreak and physical woes at a beach resort – into a movie or TV series. This week, the latest incarnation of Buffett's only Top 10 pop hit will be unveiled, this time on Broadway: Escape to Margaritaville, the first jukebox musical based on Buffett's songs, opens on the Great White Way on Thursday.

Buffett's interest in musical theater dates back to his childhood in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Mary Loraine "Peets" Buffett, took him to see theatrical shows there and even starred in a local production of South Pacific. "I can sing all those songs," he says. "So I thought, 'Maybe I can write one of those.'" If a show is a hit, a successful theater production can also be lucrative, spinning off into touring productions. "Yes, of course, absolutely," says Buffett, but he stresses an equal motivation to "just to pull it off."

Around 30 years ago, Buffett was approached by the late Broadway impresario James Nederlander about a one-man show, a precursor to what Bruce Springsteen is currently undertaking. Buffett entertained the thought but realized it couldn't be worth the effort financially. "I thought it would be cool and I'd make money and have fun," he says. "But it required a union crew and I said, 'Mr. Nederlander, I did the numbers and I would lose money here.'" Buffett's first full-on attempt at theater – a musical based on author Herman Wouk's 1965 novel Don't Stop the Carnival – included all-new Buffett songs. But it shut down after a limited run in Miami in 1997.

Once he'd decided to make another go at musical theater, prompted by running into producers at a performance of the show Big Fish in 2014, Buffett and his collaborators (who include film producer Frank Marshall, who was involved in all the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies, among others), went in search of a story. Hiring writers Greg Garcia (creator of the Jason Lee sitcom My Name Is Earl, a Buffett favorite) and writer-actor Mike O'Malley, Buffett gave the two men a few basic guidelines. The show had to include the roughly dozen songs his fans demand to hear at his shows and a live band onstage. "I said, 'The story has to be about playing in a bar band, and now you run with it,'" Buffett says. To ensure that his lead actor, Paul Alexander Nolan, fully grasped the scenario, Buffett eventually flew him to the Florida Keys and had him sing and play in a bar there.

"The main thing was not to have too many new songs," says Marshall, who helped raised the $15 million needed to get the show up and running as well as fund out-of-town runs before Broadway. "You have to make the most popular ones work."

Garcia and O'Malley started digging into Buffett's concert playlists for inspiration. "We sat down with the songs we knew and listened to those lyrics and said, 'OK, we want these songs in here for a reason – we want them to be part of the story,'" says Garcia. "It was a real puzzle to put together." They realized that certain story-songs, like "He Went to Paris" and "Son of a Son of a Sailor," could easily be adapted to their story and its characters. O'Malley and Garcia returned with an outline for a story that could have been straight from one of Buffett's songs or novels: At a rundown resort on a Caribbean island, a bar singer named Tully, known for one-week stands with vacationing women, meets and unexpectedly falls for Rachel, a visiting workaholic from the city.

Along the way, some songs, like "Pencil Thin Mustache" and "Fruitcakes," were considered but dropped when they didn't quite fit in. But Garcia and O'Malley found what they felt was the perfect place for "Margaritaville." "That song isn't a celebration," says Garcia. "When you listen to it, it's a sad song. We pointed that out right away, and it took on a different tone for Tully." Buffett agrees: "There's a melancholy side to Key West, of people escaping to it. The way it's used here reclaims the song."

In between his own shows, Buffett would fly himself (he's a licensed pilot) to workshops and rehearsals, often showing up in flip-flops and eagerly offering suggestions. He also wrote a few new songs, like "Three Chords," for a romantic scene with Tully and Rachel.

More radically, the writers asked Buffett if he could tweak the lyrics of some of his hits to match the characters and storylines. Reverting to a lesson he learned from working on Don't Stop the Carnival, Buffett was happy to rewrite verses in songs like "Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude," "Havana Daydreamin'" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise" to reflect specific scenes. "I said, 'Anything you want to do, I'm willing to do,'" Buffett recalls. "I had no problem bending the lyrics and it was challenging to do it. What I did tell Chris and the writers was, 'You can't fuck with the choruses. Those are the hooks. They have to stay.'" (O'Malley agrees: "You can't have someone sing 'Turkey Burger in Paradise.'")

As part of his own research, director Christopher Ashley, who helmed the current Broadway hit Come From Away, went to his first-ever Buffett shows. Ashley witnessed the bond between Buffett's dedicated Parrotheads and the songs, as well as the energy they brought to the shows, and he incorporated those insights into Escape to Margaritaville. "At a musical, you need people to sit and concentrate, but we're trying to borrow the playful spirit from the shows," Ashley says. (Without giving away too many spoilers, a certain chant makes an appearance, as do beach balls, which several theater staffers have to inflate each night.)

After readings and workshops, the first production of Escape to Margaritaville was mounted at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California last May. The show received respectable reviews and, following that run, had pre-Broadway runs in Chicago, Houston and New Orleans. In Chicago, Ashley was again reminded of the intensity of the Parrotheads during a public question-and-answer session with Ashley, Buffett and others in the show. When asked if certain hits weren't in the show, Ashley said yes and mentioned one, "A Pirate Looks at Forty." "The audience went, 'Oooooh,'" Ashley recalls. "They weren't throwing anything at me, but they weren't happy. I got a lot of grief from the fans. The emotional connection to his music is strong." That song is now in the musical.

Right up through opening night, the show continued to evolve. Six different Buffett songs were considered for the opening number. A few other classics, including "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere," were added later. Another legacy of the La Jolla run will live on in Manhattan. In California, tailgaters partied in the La Jolla Playhouse parking lot, a first for the theater. In that spirit, the Marriott Marquis Theatre, where Escape to Margaritaville will be performed, has set up Adirondack chairs and other chill-out spaces in the area in front of the entrance. During early previews, the bar ran out of margarita mix. "They couldn't believe how busy the bar was," says Ashley.

The finished production aims to fulfill the expectations of both Parrotheads and theater regulars. For the former camp, the show includes not only Buffett's hits but in-jokes, like a reference to his cameo in Jurassic World. Those who prefer traditional theater will be given at least one major song-and-dance production number, and the production's many moving parts include vehicles and boats, although choreographer Kelly Devine says there was some internal debate over the show's dancing clouds. (Yes, you read that correctly.) "I fought to keep them," Devine says. "They might be polarizing, but I like them, and if you know Jimmy's spirit and sense of humor, you understand the joy of dancing clouds."

Buffett has one further hurdle to leap over on opening night – theater critics. "Man, that's part of it," he says. "I was a music critic at one time and I couldn't give anyone a bad review. I knew how hard it is to get up there and do it, good or bad. The effort alone takes so much. So I never read reviews. I didn't care – we were selling out.

"Who knows if the public is going to buy it?" he adds. "But I think there's an understanding that fun is a real part of life and it's necessary to have some escapism."