As a boy in the late 1950s, Jimmy Buffett spent a summer at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans. His uncle, Jack Rappaport, sold 3-D glasses out of an office in the building, which granted young Jimmy access.
“It was my first taste of show business," Buffett recalled during a recent phone interview. “I’d sit up in the Saenger’s balcony and watch movies for free in the air conditioning.
"I thought, ‘Man, this show biz thing, I wish I could do that.’ I’d ask Uncle Jack, ‘What do you need to do to go into that business?’ He’d say, ‘You’re supposed to be a sailor.’ I went, ‘But this looks pretty good.’ ”
Show business has indeed been pretty good to Jimmy Buffett. The Gulf Coast native’s escapism empire, built on sun-and-sand singalongs, now includes "Escape to Margaritaville," a Broadway-bound musical comedy based on his songs.
Appropriately enough, the show’s pre-Broadway shakeout period includes a weeklong, 10-show residency at the Saenger, the building that first sparked Buffett’s showbiz dreams.
“Escape to Margaritaville” opens Friday, followed by matinee and evening performances on Saturday and Sunday. The show is dark Monday, then continues Tuesday through Oct. 27, concluding with a 2 p.m. performance Oct. 28. Tickets are still available at the box office or via Ticketmaster, starting at $36 plus service charges.
While Buffett himself is not part of the cast, he’s the “spirit guide,” director Christopher Ashley said in a separate interview. The show is “very much inspired by the world of his music and novels and ethos. He approaches his job and life with brio and joy.”
No stranger to high-profile visitors, Mid-City Rock 'n' Bowl shared a photo of a surprise gu…
"Escape to Margaritaville" aspires to be more than just a “jukebox musical” recital of Buffett’s most popular songs. Musical theater “is something rock ‘n’ rollers are not supposed to do,” Buffett said. “‘Jukebox musical’ isn’t a very flattering term when you’re around Broadway people. It’s like they used to refer to (heavy) metal at the record companies as ‘dirty Kleenex’ — you’ve got to have 'em, but you don’t really want 'em.
“I wanted to break that mode. I felt I had enough of a sense of how musicals react because I’ve been going to them all my life. I loved them as entertainment, and then I began to study them.”
His first hands-on experience was a short-lived stage show based on his 1998 album "Don't Stop the Carnival," which in turn was inspired by a 1965 novel by Herman Wouk. Wouk introduced Buffett to the work of such Broadway heavyweights as producer/director Harold Prince and the composing team of Adolf Green and Betty Comden.
Wouk “was Obi-wan Kenobi and I was Luke Skywalker in the musical theater world," Buffett said. "I got invaluable insight into what to do. The seeds were planted back then of a musical based on my songs."
After getting his start playing for tips in the French Quarter over 40 years ago, Jimmy Buf…
He was approached several years ago about developing "Escape to Margaritaville.” The veteran creative team includes renowned choreographer Kelly Devine and the Tony Award-winning Ashley, who has helped hone several productions for Broadway as the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
"If you’re going to try for this big brass ring, you couldn’t have better people around you," Buffett said. "It takes a helluva lot of people. I run a pretty big organization, but the intricacies of doing a Broadway musical far outweigh what it takes to put a big-time rock ‘n’ roll show on the road.”
A two-year search for writers led to TV comedy veterans Greg Garcia (“My Name is Earl”) and Mike O’Malley (“Survivor’s Remorse,” “Shameless”). “I wanted writers who knew the music," Buffett said. "I didn’t want somebody doing their version of me. It was very important that whoever the writers were had grown up listening to this music.”
The goal was for Buffett's beloved songs — and new compositions written specifically for the show — to serve a narrative. “There has to be a story," Buffett said. "The characters have to be authentic and believable. Southern writers tend to produce good characters. I hope we did on this one.”
The dramatic arc turns on the tension between Tully, a live-for-the-moment bartender played by Paul Alexander Nolan, and Rachel, a no-nonsense career woman played by Alison Luff.
Not surprisingly, Buffett’s pre-existing song catalog suited one of those characters more than the other.
“It was easy to pick songs for a bar singer/surfer dude,” Ashley said. “Finding songs for a driven, urban, professional woman who wants to change the world was harder.”
Buffett wrote new material and was open to reinterpretations of such older songs as “Come Monday” and “Grapefruit-Juicyfruit.”
“Some people are biblical about treating their music with reverence,” Ashley said. “He constantly recreates lyrics on his feet (during concerts). We’d say, ‘We’re thinking about this in a new way.’ ‘Great, try it.’ He is willing to change and reinvent.”
That said, having a trove of proven melodies and lyrics was helpful.
“The great asset we had going into musical theater was people know these songs,” Buffett said. “We don’t have to wait and see if one or two songs take. We’re OK in that department.”
Prior to signing on to direct “Escape to Margaritaville,” Ashley had never attended a Buffett show. “I knew his most famous 20 songs, but not the other 480.”
He’s since learned just how omnipresent Buffett’s Margaritaville brand is. As the production staff sought beach-related props online, “every single time the No. 1 hit on Google search was a Margaritaville product,” Ashley said. “He has a monopoly on beach products.”
"Escape to Margaritaville" rehearsed for several weeks in New York and debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse. As is typical for major musicals in development, changes were subsequently made. At least one of Buffett’s most famous songs was added to the playlist “because I can’t hear one more Parrothead berate me,” Ashley said, laughing.
In La Jolla, “we got a good base, but we needed character work, and we knew that," Buffett said. "There’ll be things that we fix all the way to Broadway.”
After New Orleans, the production moves to Houston for a week, followed by a three-week run at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. “Escape to Margaritaville” makes its Broadway debut at the Marquis Theatre in New York on Feb. 16.
"You never know what the public’s going to buy,” Buffett said. “We built our reputation on being professional and giving everybody a bang for the buck. You take those two simple things, and you find people who agree with you on that, and it’s a good place to start."
The hope is that the show appeals not just to Parrotheads.
“A lot of people tend to categorize the audience going into this as Parrotheads or traditional Broadway," Buffett said. "Look, I’m a child of the Mardi Gras. There are people that get in costume and get on a float, and there are people that sit on the street. But everybody’s at Mardi Gras.
"In my world, there are Parrotheads and there are people who just listen to us when they go on vacation with their kids. You don’t have to be one of those people that’s in a parrot costume to enjoy it. I think the same thing will happen with this show.”
He'll be working at his “real job” on Saturday, playing a concert in San Diego. But he planned to fly to New Orleans afterward to attend at least some "Escape to Margaritaville" performances.
"These couple weeks are going to be fun, and we’re going to learn a lot about our show,” he said. “What I really want to see is the audience reaction. Because we’ll know then if we got 'em.”