Jimmy Buffett has a list he likes to call "The 15 Songs We Have to Play or Get Killed" —a list he gladly passed along to his collaborators on"Escape to Margaritaville," a jukeboxmusical headed to Phoenix on Thursday, Sept. 16, for a five-performance run at the Madison Center for the Arts.
"I don't mind it at all," Buffett says, with a laugh, referring to the sense of obligation to dust off those same 15 songs at every concert with his Coral Reefer Band.
"I think of it as we're lucky to be up there and these people love the songs soI'm gonna play them."
From such crowd-pleasing staples as "Fins" and "Margaritaville" to "Cheeseburgers in Paradise,"those songs make up what Buffett calls"the core" ofa musical comedy written byGreg Garcia(“My Name is Earl”) and Mike O’Malley(“Survivors Remorse").
"You're working with two real important things," Buffett says.
"Recognition and energy. And it was pretty obvious that you weren't gonna go in there and write a show called 'Escape to Margaritaville' with all brand new songs that nobody had heard."
This is Jimmy Buffett's second musical
Billed as "a two-and-a-half-hour vacation without ever leaving the theatre," the show made itsBroadway premiere at the MarriottMarquis Theatre inFebruary 2018.
A national tour was launched the following year.
USA Today has said "Escape to Margaritaville" could be a "little slice of paradise" for Parrotheads while Entertainment Weekly raved that "it will knock your flip-flops off!"
This is actually the singer's second musical.
The first, "Don't Stop the Carnival," was a musical adaptation of Herman Wouk's 1965 novel of the same name, which as Buffett recalls, "we were hoping would be a big hit but wasn't."
"Don't Stop the Carnival"premiered in 1997 in Miami, where it played for six weeks, with Buffett releasing the songs on an album the following year.
As luck would have it, though, his investors in"Escape to Margaritaville" were in attendance in Miami and enjoyed "Don't Stop the Carnival" enough to back a second Buffett musical.
This time, Buffett felt the key to his success was finding actual fans of what he does to write the book.
It took about two years to find the right people.
"Because with no disrespect to the Broadway world,when we first started out, they were basically doing their version of me," Buffett says, with a laugh. "I could see that real quick."
The writers have hit TV shows to their credit
Producer Frank Marshall suggested Garcia and O'Malley.
"They done a couple hit TV shows," Buffett says.
"And they were fans. So I said, 'You're the fan. You know which songs work for you. Take those songs— you're the writers— and see what you come up with. And that's what they did."
The end result is a romantic comedy in which a singer bartendernamed Sully falls for the far more career-minded Rachel, who's vacationing with friends and hanging out at Margaritaville, the hotel bar where Sully works.
The first time Buffett saw a staging of the musical at a reading for investors with a small band.
"When was over, it seemed that the whole audience had a really good time in a tough New York crowd of theater patrons and investors," Buffett says.
"So then they had a little Q&A after. And somebody said, 'Well, what did you think?' And all I said,before thinking, was,'I've never been to a Jimmy Buffett show. I had a good time.'"
The musical brings 'Margaritaville' to life
One thing Buffett loves about the musical is bringing Margaritaville to life.
"Margaritavillehas been a myth for such a long time," Buffett says.
"There was no such place as Margaritaville. It was a made-up place in my mind,basically made up about my experiences in Key West and having to leave Key West and go on the road to work and then come back and spend time by the beach."
Key West has always held a special place in Buffett's heart.
"Key West was always kind of mythical andalso had a lot of history of great writers who kind of use it as their oasis as well," Buffett says.
"That's kind of how I stumbled upon it. And I stayed there. Then the reality was that you had to take it out on the road. But you were singing people to take them away somewhere mythical for a while until they have to return back to their real lives."
The 'Margaritaville' origin story
Buffett was in Austin, Texas, when the inspiration struck for "Margaritaville."
"It was a hot day," the singer recalls, "And they were damn good margaritas."
He and a friendhad stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant before she dropped him at the airport for a flight back home to Key West, so they got to drinking margaritas.
"And I kind of came up with that idea of this is justlike Margarita-ville," Buffett says. "She kind of laughed at that and put me on the plane. And I started working on it."
He wrote some on the plane and finished it while driving down the Keys.
"There was a wreck on the bridge," he says. " And we got stopped for about an hour so I finished the song on the Seven Mile Bridge, which I thought was apropos."
The first time Buffett realized he had written something specially, hewas working in a little bar in Key West and slipped "Margaritaville into a set that was probably 80 percent covers."
"Everybody responded to that song immediately in that little bar," he says. "I thought, well, this will work good into my setlist. But that's all I thought about it."
By the time he recorded the song for 1977's "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes" album, it had become one of his biggest crowd-pleasers.
But even then, he says, "I never thought it was gonna do what it did."
'It's pure escapism is all it is'
The song became his biggest hit, topping the Easy Listening charts and going Top 10 on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 8.
In 2016, "Margaritaville" was added to the Grammy Hall of Famefor its cultural and historic significance, by which pointJimmy Buffett's Margaritaville was a successful chain of casual-dining restaurants.
Now, it's right there in the title of a touring jukebox musical of Buffett's most beloved songs, which he sees as a naturalextension of his live show.
It's not for nothing the first word in the title is escape.
"It's pure escapism is all it is," he says.
"I'm not the first one to do it, nor shall I probably be the last. But I think it's really a part of the human condition that you've got to have some fun. You've got to get away from whatever you do to make a living or other parts of life that stress you out. I try to make it at least 50/50 fun to work and so far it's worked out."
The singerrecently returned to playing live.
"We took it very slow," he says.
"I was in California for a long time at the beginning of the pandemic. And when we started to go back to work, the first place we played in Solana Beach, a placecalled Belly Up. It was 40 people at 10 tables. Friends."
Now he's back to headlining the amphitheaters he's been packing for the past few decades.
"It was kind of a compressed version of my entire career because I started with my mother's friends coming to my first show," he says, with a laugh.
"And then it wound up being 25,000 people a night. We compressed that into about a month and a half as we came back to work this time."
The energy he's getting from the audience at those performances has been amazing.
"We just got through with a great one out in Colorado," Buffett says.
"They're there to have fun at a show. There's like a hyper kind of euphoric thing going on out there. At every show we've done so far, people are so happy we're there and so happy to be having some fun."
He's looking forward to seeing another production of "Escape to Margaritaville" now that things are getting back to normal.
But he's heard good things about a recent run in Maine at a summer stock theater.
"It was the longest-running show of the season," he says. "And they broke the house record for Margarita sales. So that was an indicator."
'Escape to Margaritaville'
When: 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Sept. 16-17; 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18; 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19.
Where: The Madison Center for the Arts, 5601 N. 16th St., Phoenix.
Details: 602-664-7777, themadison.org
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.
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