When it comes to growing your brand, there’s no better way to do it than to tell a story. And when it comes to storytelling, you can’t get much better than songwriter, author, entrepreneur and beach goer, Jimmy Buffett. Through his songs, novels and themed restaurants, Buffett has been able to share his stories to grow his brand into an empire. And you know your brand is big when your fanbase of followers have a nickname — in Buffett’s case, Parrot Heads — and now Parrot Heads have something more to look forward to: a Broadway musical written around Buffett’s songs. Cale Weissman, a writer for Fast Company, sat down with Buffett and Tony Award winning director Christopher Ashley to discuss their soon to be performed musical, Escape to Margaritaville, and how it came to be.
The show in the making is a mix of new and old songs written by Buffett. And, according to Ashley, it came together over the last three to four years, which he said is pretty fast for a Broadway musical. Buffet shared that he’s always had a love for theatre and was ready to bring his music to this next level.
“I’ve made a couple attempts to get to Broadway before because it was always something I wanted to scratch out on my list, but I never got to the point where I could be with so many great people who had been there and experienced it before,” Buffett said. “The first run through we did was pretty amazing to me to hear other people do my stuff. At the end, somebody said, ‘well how do you feel?’ and I said, “I’ve never been to a Jimmy Buffett show. It’s kinda overwhelming but it was pretty cool.”
Buffett and Ashley described the creation of the show as a big collaboration between them, the writers and everyone else involved in production. “One of the great things about collaborating with Jimmy is we’ll call him up or he’ll be there at rehearsal and I’ll say, ‘hey, we’re thinking about doing this’ and he’ll say, ‘great, try it.’ And that’s pretty much always his answer and it gives it that really adventurous spirit,” Ashley said.
The balance between making a show for hardcore Buffett fans as well as a general theatre audience has been the topic of many conversations, according to Ashley. “We’re trying to make a show that both appeals to the Parrot Heads, who know every bit of his music, and to a hardcore theatre audience that really is there for a story and might know a bit of the music but really aren’t yet aficionados,” he said.
Beside creating a show that would be enjoyable to all audiences, Buffett and Ashley said they wanted to make a show that was authentic. “I wanted to make sure that the writers were people that understood the music and not people trying to do their version of me,” Buffett said. He also made the lead actor go play in a bar to experience what it was like being a solo performer. The actor, Paul Alexander Nolan, even got to headline; Jimmy said he was the opener. “I thought it was pretty essential,” Buffett said. “If you’re gonna play a bar singer, I think you have to experience it.”
According to Ashley, there are two new Buffet songs in the show “so far.” Buffett revealed he wrote three others that were cut but not to worry because he didn’t throw them away and he said we’ll see them again. “What I loved about the first time writing for a musical is you’re writing on assignment,” Buffett said. “I’ve never done that before. So Chris has given me assignments and I try to get good grades.”
When it came to the placement of all the songs though, Buffett was glad to not be in charge. “I didn’t want to be the one to make the choices of where the songs go. I mean, I know the 12 songs that I gotta do or get killed every night — those are going in. But then you’ve got a lot of room and I’m thinking, ‘oh God please let Chris know what to do here,’ and he did,” Buffett said. “I didn’t want to do it because you’re having to make a story out of these songs that were never meant to be a story together, and he and the writers did an excellent job.
As far as setting goals for the opening of the show, Buffett said he just hopes they’re still open the next day. “I think you never know what the public is going to buy. But you leap and a net sometimes appears, and I think the net may appear here.” He then added, in true surfer fashion, “I think we got a good wave and I’d like to ride it for a while.”
Escape to Margaritaville is set to open later this fall with shows in New Orleans, Houston and Chicago before coming to Broadway.