Escape to Margaritaville, a musical comedy headed to Broadway in February, gave Jimmy Buffett the chance to do something he’d never done before: attend a Jimmy Buffett concert. At a rehearsal earlier this year, a grinning Buffett leaned forward in his seat and whispered to Greg Garcia, co-writer of the show’s book, “Now I see what all the fuss is about.”
The musical, inspired by Buffett’s career and featuring a number of his beach-bar classics along with original compositions, has been in development for five years. It is currently showing at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans through October 28. Buffett, who grew up on the Alabama Gulf Coast and got his start busking in New Orleans, is playing a behind-the-scenes role as composer, lyricist, and spiritual leader for the rest of the crew.
“If something hits his ear wrong, he’ll let us know,” says Garcia, best known for creating the sitcoms My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope. Garcia and co-writer Mike O’Malley, who starred in the sitcom Yes, Dear and created the Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse, worked closely with Buffett to invent a story and characters rooted in the singer’s particular brand of tropical, funky, good-vibes music. At the center of it: Tully, an easygoing hotel bartender and musician played by Paul Alexander Nolan, whose boat gets rocked by an environmental scientist named Rachel, played by Alison Luff. To get a feel for Tully, Buffett took the writers and Nolan down to where his own career took off: the Florida Keys.
“Jimmy wanted him to see what it was like to play in actual bars,” Garcia says. “And I soaked it all in, too, the vibe down there. That was an experience, being in the Keys with Jimmy Buffett.”
The writers likewise sought to transport audiences to a place latitudes removed from quotidian stresses, setting their story on a fictional tropical island and taking their cues from Buffett’s greatest hits. “Jimmy said there are 12 songs you have to play or you get killed when you get up onstage,” says Garcia, who grew up singing Buffett karaoke with his buddies on the Ocean City, Maryland, boardwalk. “So we started there and pulled the characters out of the songs. Every one is sung for a reason. The character who sings ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ has a deep, deep, right-to-the-core-of-what-my-life-needs-now desire for a cheeseburger.”
Buffett collaborated with Garcia and O’Malley throughout the show’s development. He and O’Malley first worked together in 2007 on a television pilot also inspired by Buffett that didn’t end up going into development, and he’d become a fan of Garcia’s comedic chops watching My Name Is Earl. Buffett traded notes with the writers throughout the musical’s development, tweaking and inventing new tunes as their story dictated. O’Malley says the new song “Three Chords” emerged from a need to describe how Tully might find success as a musician. “We said, ‘We need a song here,’ and Jimmy came back with this piece about how three chords is all you need,” O’Malley says. “He has this ability to crystallize these universal notions and turn them into catchy phrases and lyrics.”
O’Malley says the most memorable thing about collaborating with Buffett has been his work ethic. “He’s inexhaustible in his ability to keep working and refining and making something great, and that’s a thing you don’t necessarily pick up on in the songs—by design.”
Escape to Margaritaville broke box-office records at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, where it debuted earlier this year. After its run in New Orleans, the show will travel to Houston and Chicago before starting at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway February 16. Fore more information, visit escapetomargaritavillemusical.com.