Jimmy Buffett looks to Broadway as 'Margaritaville' sails into Chicago
Jimmy Buffett is one savvy pop star.
He knows what his parrothead legions want. And he gives it to them.
"There are 10 or 15 songs that we always play," said Buffett, 70. "We always joke we either play those songs or we get killed."
Theatergoers can expect to hear fan favorites plus some new songs next week when "Escape to Margaritaville," the Broadway-bound musical inspired by Buffett's canon, sails into town Thursday, Nov. 9, for a run at Chicago's Oriental Theatre.
The sunny tuner about an easygoing island resort bartender who falls for a workaholic tourist marks the second time Buffett set his sights on Broadway. His first attempt, a 1997 musical adaptation of Herman Wouk's novel "Don't Stop the Carnival," played Miami but never reached New York.
The prospects for his second attempt are considerably brighter.
"We're actually going to Broadway this time," joked Buffett, who has business interests in restaurants, hotels, casinos and a Florida retirement development that bear the Margaritaville imprimatur.
Buffett says he's more encouraged this go-round, mainly because he didn't have to sell the idea to producers, investors or director Christopher Ashley, who jumped on board the minute a producer asked if he'd consider helming a Jimmy Buffett musical.
"When do we start?" asked Ashley, the 2017 Tony Award winner for "Come From Away."
Ashley said he knew about 40 Buffett songs when the collaboration began. Now he knows many more.
"I started the project loving his music. He's got such a joyous, celebratory body of work," Ashley said, adding it's about finding joy and living one's life with "brio and gusto."
"It's a fun sandbox to play in," he said.
Ashley said he and book writers Greg Garcia (TV's "My Name is Earl" and "Raising Hope") and Mike O'Malley (Showtime's "Shameless" and Starz's "Survivor's Remorse") never considered making the show a bio-musical a la "Jersey Boys" or "On Your Feet."
According to him, Buffett's led too happy a life for a bio-musical. Instead, they mined the world of Buffett's stories (he penned three New York Times best-sellers) and songs to chronicle the romance between a guy who lives in the moment and a woman who lives to change the world.
During a press preview last June, Ashley and creative team members described the show as pure, escapist fun.
"Escapism has worked for me for a long time," he said.
The Mississippi-born singer-songwriter and multiplatinum recording artist has toured with his Coral Reefer Band every year since 1976, playing his trademark "gulf and western" music, which pairs country-pop with island-tinged melodies.
Like Ashley, Garcia and O'Malley were Buffett fans, which made their collaboration easy. But the composer/lyricist had one condition.
"We can tinker with the lyrics and verses, but we will never change the choruses," Buffett said.
For parrotheads, the choruses are sacred.
But "Escape to Margaritaville," which has been in the works for about five years, has evolved since it premiered last spring in La Jolla, California. They've changed the opening, cut three songs, added three more and revised 40 percent of the book, Ashley said. The show will likely continue to evolve right up to opening night, Ashley said.
He says Chicago, New Orleans and Houston were chosen as preview cities because they're home to substantial numbers of Buffett fans as well as discerning theatergoers.
"We're interested in how the story holds up with a Chicago audience," he said. "That's part of why we're here."
For all its fan familiarity, newcomers won't feel left out, according to Ashley.
Like a Buffett concert, "Escape to Margaritaville" invites participation, but doesn't force it, said Ashley, who observed audience members singing along quietly to some of the better-known tunes.
"There are all kinds of places where the audience can get involved," he said. "Restraint is not required."
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"Escape to Margaritaville"
Location: The Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; from Nov. 9 to Dec. 2