By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 02, 2018 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Escape to Margaritaville

type
  • TV Show

A version of this story appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

When you hear the name Jimmy Buffett, a couple of things come to mind — a lost shaker of salt, a sailboat, a picturesque tropical vista, and of course, that frozen concoction that helps us hang on: the margarita.

What you probably don’t think of is the lights of Broadway, but that’s just where the island tunesmith has headed with his new musical Escape to Margaritaville, which opened March 15 at the Marquis Theatre in New York. The musical follows Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan), a laid-back bartender/singer at a Caribbean resort, and Rachel (Alison Luff), a buttoned-up scientist, who find themselves in an unexpected vacation romance amidst a bachelorette party and some research involving the local volcano.

The show features dozens of Buffett’s greatest hits reworked for the stage, as well as a couple of new tunes penned especially for this breezy island tale. EW caught up with Buffett a few days before opening night to talk his lifelong love of musicals, the differences between writing for an album and a stage play, and what it’s like seeing the characters from some of his beloved songs tread the boards in flip flops.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have been working on the show for about five years now. How did the idea come to be? And had you always had an interest in musical theater?
JIMMY BUFFETT: Yes, I grew up on it. My mom and dad worked in the shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, but when she wasn’t working she was a big member of the Mobile Theatre Guild, so I got my love of musical theater from her. She would always be in productions and she would take me to the shows when they’d come through town. I never saw one in New York until many years later, but I just got infected then. I always was interested in theater. There are great [musicals] and then there are ones where you go, “Well, I could do that. “And be careful what you wish for. I read a book by Herman Wouk called Don’t Stop the Carnival that I loved, and it was kind of a Bible if you lived in the Caribbean. I was living on a sailboat then. Everybody in the Caribbean had a copy of Don’t Stop the Carnival on their boat and maybe a Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett tape, so those were kind of essential things to have on a sailing boat. Fast forward to the fact that I ran into a guy at Universal who knew Herman Wouk, and he said this would be a great musical. So I found Herman Wouk, and went to see him in Palm Springs, Florida to ask him and not only did he give me permission to do it, but he wrote the libretto. We did the show, probably 18 or 19 years ago in Miami. I learned a lot of good things and I learned a lot of things not to do. The essence of what happened in that show was the beginning of doing a musical based on my work, on my songs. That came through other people who were admirers and fans who were in the musical theater business that came to me with the ideas, and I was lucky enough to have great people that had the inclination to do this. I followed them because I did not know what I was doing. I’ve learned to trust a lot of people.

What are some of your favorite musicals?
My favorite of all time? [Laughs] South Pacific. I saw the last one when it was at Lincoln Center. The first time I ever went to Tahiti on a trip, I wound up at a bar called Bloody Mary’s on Bora Bora and the night I got there, they were running the movie South Pacific in the bar. I went, “I was meant to be here!” As I’ve been working on Escape to Margaritaville, everybody can escape and there’s some fun songs in there, but it would be great to have characters that last. So that has been a real focus point and getting real authentic and believable characters like Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush, I go right back there.

In addition to being a prolific songwriter, you’ve written novels, children’s books, and more. How involved were you in writing process?
The writers wrote the book. It was critical that we had people that knew the culture as writers, and that took two years to find Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley. I just wanted to let them pick songs. You’ve got this incredible group of creative people, just give them the stuff because they know how to do it much better in this genre than I ever thought about doing and when they needed me to work on songs [I would]. The fun thing for me to do is to take traditional songs that every Parrothead fan knows and put them into this new genre and make them work for characters in the show. Those guys wrote such a good book based on the fact that they were fans and I just came in and kind of, as they say, Buffett-ized it.

You wrote some new songs for the show — did you find it an extremely different process writing for characters and a narrative as opposed to writing for an album?
It’s a totally different process because I’m a stream of consciousness writer. You write on the moment and you jot something down. “Margaritaville” was written five minutes after I was having margarita at a bar in Austin, Texas. You never know what’s going to work. The first time that I had to write on assignment like doing schoolwork was on Don’t Stop the Carnival because Herman Wouk wrote the book, and I wrote original new songs for that show.

You’re taking songs that already exist in their own compact narrative and adapting them to fit with larger story and with characters. What was that process like?
These songs have been a part of our road show for 45 years, and it’s like taking a dog to hunt in a new field. I was pretty insistent upon the choruses [staying] the choruses. We could use lyrics in the verses to fit different characters, but we’ve rode a long wave of success on those songs, and I wanted the familiarity of people being able to sing along with the chorus to be in the show. Then, also, I pretty much knew that a song like “Margaritaville,” if you haven’t heard it at all in your entire life, by the time you get to the last chorus, you’re probably singing [along]. That’s just the way the process works. The more I see it the more they become the songs of the characters and I watch the audience enjoying these songs being sung by real people other than me.

Was there one song in particular you’ve come to see in a new light or have a different appreciation of after you’ve seen it become totally re-worked?
Yes — “Margaritaville.” When [director Christopher Ashley] staged that the first time, it was a real moment of magic. The way he set it up was kind of the way I wrote the song. I wrote it with a guitar, and I was sitting in the airport waiting for a plane from Austin to Key West. I was just sitting there strumming. The way it happens in the show really touched a chord with me, pardon the pun.

Credit: Matthew Murphy

How involved were you in the casting process and finding Rachel and Tully?
I was in most of the casting sessions. Every casting session I could be at if I wasn’t working, I was there. Because I love that part of the process. There were people who were there at the first reading we did in New York like four years ago now. Andre Ward, who plays Jamal, when he read the first day, I knew he would be in this show. I just knew it. And it turned out that way. The other thing is I’m always humbled by the incredible amount of talent all of these actors and singers and swing players have. In the world of musicals, the pay scale, let’s face it, is not up to what other people can do if they’re doing other things, but these trained actors and singers and actresses are amazing to me. Of course I hope it has great success and a great run, but more so for them than for me.

From San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse through all of the other out-of-town tryouts, would you say the show has changed a lot?
The show has changed a lot. It’s changed where it needed to change. It’s just like building a boat and that’s kind of what I go back to. Being from a boat building family and knowing that it’s never finished. We had the songs, we had great people, but you had to put it in front of the audience and that was the most important thing to me. [They are] playing characters that are based on songs that people have heard for 40 years but have never met the characters. That’s why they needed to meet the characters. And then the other thing was that you just had to have that experience to see which songs fit where, and what you needed to change because reviewers would tell you things.

Normally you’re singing and we’re in the audience, so what’s it like now being a member of the audience watching your songs be performed? Is it weird for you?
Yes, it is very weird for me. I’m not a good audience person because I’m studying shows. I go to see a lot of friends but I’m usually backstage. If I’m out front I’m too involved in watching the production process and watching the energy and watching the performances, I’m judging. It’s hard to relax sometimes. If I’m going to relax, I’ll go to a bar and listen to a band, then I’m not studying. But, here, it’s essential to study the crowd. There was always the perception that there were two audiences here, which I kind of disagreed with. There was a theatre, like a membership audience. The show’s got to reach them as well as it reaches your diehard fans. Well I’ve been doing this for 50 years and you run into a lot of places where I don’t think there’s as much as a division between those two perceptions of an audience. “Fins” comes very early in the show, and the audience reaction to “Fins,” you will know immediately how many diehard fans you have in that audience. There’s a couple of lines and then, of course, the fin comes up. That is the giveaway point to me. You wait and as the song goes, then you see the people who are not familiar looking around to people who are standing and they’re doing the fin. They’re going, “It looks like we’ve got permission to have a good time here.” They kind of nudge themselves into relaxing a little more, and by the end of it, there’s about 2 to 3 times as many people doing the fin as there were in the beginning and that’s when you know it works.

So can people expect a similar atmosphere to your concerts?
It is very familiar, whether you’ve seen them or not. I appreciate the fact that people have been coming for so long, but you always have to try to get that person that they’re not sure where they are or why they’re there. And my job is to put on a show that takes that out of their mind by the end of it.

Along similar lines, if someone is unfamiliar with your music, what would you say to entice them to come to the show?
It’s March in New York and it’s cold. If you need a little bit of fun in your life, come in and see us for a couple of hours. We’ve done this a long time, [and] people wanted to come because they knew they could escape. I think they’ve got to come now.

What do you hope people leave the theatre with/take away from experience?
A smile on their face.

Can you describe the entire process with a couple of your song lyrics?
I’d say, “With a little love and luck, you will get by.”

Escape to Margaritaville

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