By Valarie D’Elia
“In surfer vernacular, I think we’ve got a good wave and I’d like to ride it for a while.”
Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett could easily be talking about his 50-year career, during which he’s created a loyal following of baby boomers known as “Parrotheads,” people who dress up like sharks and cheeseburgers, hero worshipping a 70-year old balding, barefoot free-spirit.
(Including the author of this story.)
However, this estimated $500 million net-worth entrepreneur is referring more pointedly to his latest venture. Not an “active living” community in his growing Margaritaville hotel empire, but a Broadway show that will be opening at the Marriott Marquis Theater in Times Square come March 2018.
Staging a Broadway show is something Buffett always wanted to do, after inheriting a love for musical theater from his mother. It didn’t take long to secure outside interest.
“There were people who simply liked the idea of doing it and were fans of my music who introduced me to the talented Christopher Ashley and happy to know, as the director of the La Jolla playhouse, he’d wind up directing this play.”
This play, is in fact a musical, called “Escape to Margaritaville.”
Yep. Director Chris Ashley heads up the La Jolla playhouse, but there’s now something more significant on his resume, winning the Best Direction Tony for the sleeper hit “Come From Away.”
Recently, Ashley joined Buffett at an Advertising Week seminar in New York City, and said although he was pretty familiar with Buffett’s music, he still had to do his homework.
“We did stop by a couple concerts, trying to make a show that both appeals to the Parrotheads who know every bit of music and to a hard-core theater audience that really is there for story and might know a bit of the music but really aren’t yet aficionados”
The challenge has been trying to strike a balance between obsessed people like me and those who have no idea they lost a shaker of salt.
Ashley said the story line is right out of the Buffett playbook with some new material tossed in.
“We decided we were going to do a love story between a guy who is dead center in Jimmy’s world, like a singer in a bar band, and bartender, who sees new tourists every week, really enjoys the no commitment, but a lot of fun kind of life with women, but finds himself falling in love with the exact opposite in every way, a woman who is career driven and wants to make a big difference with her life.
It is easy to find songs for our bartender, more challenging to find songs in Jimmy’s catalog for a driven career woman. But he has written some.”
Buffett, who does not appear in the show, made sure that the male lead, Paul Alexander Nolan, got a taste of reality before assuming the role.
“I made him go play a bar…Green Turtle, (on Islamorada in the Florida Keys,) because I wanted him to really experience being a solo performer.
I assumed that on your way to becoming as successful as Paul is, you are going to work some gigs that are kind of not the most glamorous in the world, but he had not actually played by himself solo in a bar where there are people watching ESPN, people talking. You got to get them. If you are going to play a bar singer I think you have to experience it.”
Buffett never fully envisioned what it would be like turning his playlist into what’s known as a “book” for Broadway.
“Songs are basically little stories unto themselves; The ones that have lasted are most appreciated by long hardcore fans. Of course we put those in there, but it’s interesting when the writers put them together and create a song line… for me all the songs in the show I would have never thought about to put on an album together ” said Buffett.
For instance, a particular fan favorite comes to mind.
“I like stories and songs that go in your heart and not necessarily in your ears. Come Monday was written about what exactly is in that song. ‘Four lonely days in a brown LA haze,’ I wrote it about a situation that was happening in my life but I didn’t realize how easily it would transfer to everybody else’s. But that’s kind of cool to have that in a show.”
This gave Buffett a surreal opportunity to be an observer of his own creation.
“First run through we did, it was pretty amazing to hear other people do my stuff and at the end people said how do you feel and I said “I’ve never been to a Jimmy Buffett show!
I meant it, it was kind of overwhelming, but pretty cool.”
Ashley says Buffett has been generous with how his songs are presented.
“Jimmy’s so free and easy with them in performance, so adapting them to the stage has been uniquely easy with this music because he changes the lyrics in performance all the time.”
So far, early reviews indicate that Parrotheads are taking the bait.
“As the show goes on, there’s more and more room for them to sing along, be part of it, by the end of the show we’re dropping beach balls on their head and there’s balls all over the theater” said Ashley.
Both Buffett and Ashley say fans will be a bit surprised to learn how the Parrothead national anthem is folded into the story line.
“One of my favorite moments in the show actually is when we finally get to the song Margaritaville. It is a moment right when our lead character has sort of discovered the woman he loves isn’t going to work out, so it starts really still and really sad, which is really in that song, and I like the fact that we’re not trying to pump the beginning of that song into being celebratory and really letting the kind of wistfulness of that song have full value, that feels so great and then that song turns into a dance number later on,” Ashley said.
Buffett adds, “I loved it too because I started that song when I was hung over in a bar in Austin, so I felt that way. I felt better when I wrote the end of it in Key West. I never felt it till Chris put it into that way, started as a kind of melancholy thing as the girl walked away, that’s kind of what happened.”
And finally, Buffett marvels how one song became the inspiration for a Broadway show.
“ The song was written in literally 6 minutes, and it was a good 6 minutes. But everybody gets their own Margaritaville, it doesn’t matter if you listen to it on the radio. I was lucky enough to put my thumb on the pulse of something that I think is part of human existence, which is escapism, and God knows we need it today. ”
Previews begin on Broadway February 16, 2018.