The cast and creative team behind the world premiere production of "Escape to Margaritaville", featuring Jimmy Buffett's music, are finding new ways to pay tribute to the icon's music in the La Jolla Playhouse production.
The musical, based off the music of Jimmy Buffett, will kick off La Jolla Playhouse's 2017-2018 season on May 9.
The story follows a part-time bartender and part-time singer who falls for a beautiful tourist, a woman who makes him question the life he thought he had figured out.
Playwrights Greg Garcia ("My Name Is Earl", "Raising Hope") and Mike O'Malley ("My Name Is Earl", "Justified", "Glee") blend a story in the works for years with new and original Jimmy Buffett hits. Buffett is known for hits like "Margaritaville", "Come Monday", "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes", "Manana", and more.
Lead Paul Alexander Nolan ("Bright Star", "Doctor Zhivago", "Chicago"), who plays Tully in the production, said when they first started developing the musical, he did not think he was familiar with a lot of Buffett's music. But that changed.
"I didn’t think I was (familiar with his music), and the more that I started to listen to it, I realized that I'm familiar with his music, I just didn’t know it was all Jimmy Buffett," Nolan explained.
Director Christopher Ashley ("Come From Away", "The Darrell Hammond Project") said he knew Buffett's top hits, but soon learned the full reach of Buffett's music.
"I knew the 50 most famous songs," Ashley said. "And the great thing about working on (the musical) is the next 200 are every bit as good."
Ashley said many of the cast and creatives involved in the project are fans of Buffett's music, the centerpiece of the show.
"Pretty much everyone who is working on this is either a parrot head or deeply in love with the music," Ashley said. "It’s lucky to get to show up every day for work and work with Jimmy Buffett songs. It’s like getting invited to a party every single day."
The idea for the musical first started four years ago, when a producer who got the rights called Ashley and told him the idea was a go.
"He said, 'I think I got them, Jimmy’s excited, and let's go,'" Ashley recalled. "So we started putting the team together."
Since then, the team behind the musical has done readings and workshops - in San Diego, New York City and across the U.S. - leading up to this May opening, the musical's first full staging and world premiere.
One of the biggest challenges when creating the show, Ashley said, was creating a finished product that longtime Buffett fans would love as much as newcomers to his music.
"One of the things we think about a lot is how do we make sure that we capture the essence of the music, how do we make sure that the people who have tailgated and shown up at those concerts, grew up listening to that music, how do we make sure that they’re really satisfied, how do we really capture the kind of joy and playfulness of that music, and also that we create a story where the music feels really organically coming out of the story moments," Ashley said.
One way the creative team has done that is by adding little Easter eggs, or hidden references, into the show from Buffett's other songs.
"Some of it is that, not only are there the maybe 25 main songs that we sing, there's all kinds of other references to the music threaded through the underscore, or witty dialogue references to it, that if you know the music you would absolutely get," Ashley explained.
Nolan said stepping into a show with music linked to such a large fan base has been something he has been working through.
"When there's a reference point and a particular fan base, I find myself wanting to honor the feeling of that," Nolan said.
He said he started off working with his character, Tully, and trying on as much of the style of Buffett's music as possible. Nolan plays the guitar for nearly a dozen of the songs in the show.
"Jimmy’s music certainly has a Western feel to it, they call it Gulf Western, or something like that," he said. "There's a certain twang to it that makes sense, and I just try it on, like a costume."
Tully is a lot like Buffett, Nolan said, in that he is a singer-songwriter at a local bar in a non-disclosed Caribbean island. Then, he meets someone who changes him for the better.
Elements of the love story in the musical and elements of the fun-loving Tully are what resonate most with Nolan, he said.
"There’s some heartbreak in it, and everybody’s had some heartbreak," Nolan said. "And everybody’s been young and on the party. My character is kind of on that, he’s on the adventure all the time. That is something of course that I am familiar with."
This production marks Nolan's third time at the Playhouse. He was last seen in the Playhouse's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and, prior to that, "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots."
In addition to some of Buffett's most popular songs, the production also features new Buffett music.
One of the show's characters, Rachel (played by Alison Luff), is less of a laid-back character, like Tully and some of the other islanders. She has a more driven and goal-oriented personality, Ashley said.
While developing the musical, Buffett had to write new music for the character to showcase her personality. As a result, Buffett wrote three news songs for the production.
Then there's the way they use some of Buffett's best-known existing songs, like 'Margaritaville'. The hit song, considered by many to be his most famous song, may sound a little different to audience members.
"There’s a real sadness in our song, and we sing it in the moment where two of our main guys have just found out they're not going to find love," Ashley said. "It starts out at this very still, kind of sad moment, and then the new round of tourists arrive and they gear up to entertain the tourists. So we both use it as a party song, but kind of let the song have its own sadness."
When audiences step out of the Mandell Weiss Theatre this summer, both Ashley and Nolan hope audiences step out with a smile on their face.
"Hopefully they go out feeling great, because you can’t do a Jimmy Buffett musical and have them feel sad," Nolan said with a smile. "It’s a joyful experience and hopefully they leave the theater humming the tunes and having had a good time, and laughed, and forgotten about world politics for an hour and a half, two hours."
Ashley said his hope for audiences is that they had as good of a time as they would have had at a Jimmy Buffett concert.
"I hope the show is an opportunity for them to think about the balance in their own life, of work and play, of making a difference in the world, and also making sure you find love," Ashley said. "I think both of those things are really important, and certainly if you want to open yourself up to love and play, there's no better soundtrack than Jimmy Buffett."
After its San Diego premiere, the show will go on to New Orleans, Houston, Chicago and, ultimately, Broadway for a Spring 2018 run.
The world premiere production of "Escape to Margaritaville" runs at the La Jolla Playhouse from May 9 to June 25. Book by Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley, music by Jimmy Buffett, directed by Christopher Ashley. To get tickets to the show, click here or call the box office at (858) 550-1010.