How Jimmy Buffett Brings 'Margaritaville' To Broadway

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 3:31 pm

In the balcony of the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, Jimmy Buffett watches the final rehearsal for his new musical, Escape to Margaritaville. Down below, technicians inflate beach balls, which, in true Buffett fashion, are to be dropped on theater-goers' heads at the end of the show.

The title of the musical, of course, references Buffett's most famous song, "Margaritaville." Like its namesake, the musical is about a beach bum who lives on a tropical island, playing the guitar and singing for tourists covered in oil. To hear a full Broadway cast perform his music has been a dream come true for the musician. "I still can't actually believe this is happening sometimes," Buffett tells NPR's David Greene. "It's been a long road."

In a musical made for his fans, also known as Parrotheads, it was important to Buffett to have Parrotheads put it together.

"I had to have people that understood the culture," he says. "There were great writers who write for Broadway exclusively that really were interesting and I like their work, but none of them were real Parrotheads."

Jimmy Buffett has been performing for Parrotheads since the 1960s. The Mississippi native began as a country singer in Nashville, but after moving to Key West, Fla. in 1972, he built a career celebrating the beach bum lifestyle, playing bars and trying to get his name spelled right on T-shirts. Back then, he lived an easy-going lifestyle, concerned only with nibbling on sponge cake and watching the sun bake. It wasn't always that easy, though. In college, Buffett lived in a trailer with his bandmates.

"We were living hand to mouth daily, and it came to the point where we couldn't pay both the gas bill and the electric bill," Buffett remembers. "So, we only paid the electric bill, and we spent money on electric blankets, and we lived with extension chords and electric blankets while we rehearsed."

Today, Buffett is a busy multi-millionaire. Parrotheads fill stadiums, some wearing cheeseburger hats. Buffett markets everything he sings about, from blenders to lost shakers of salt, and of course, his restaurant chains. But he always stays true to his fan base. "I'm not Ron Popeil," he says. "I can sell you a blender, but I'm not going to sell you a Veg-o-matic."

Some interpret his enterprising as too commercial. Buffett insists his success has been less about marketing and more about learning to meet the demand for the "feeling that you need to get away." He describes Parrothead culture as an indulgence in escapism. "It's fun, and [it's] getting away from the rigors of real life," he says, acknowledging the demand for his music to provide relief. "These days, I think we need it more than ever."

Jimmy Buffett's music, like his jukebox musical, isn't for everyone. Buffett doesn't just admit this; he's proud of it. He says he simply makes music for his audience, the paying customer.

Escape to Margaritaville doesn't have an intricate plot. Buffett and his writers essentially threw just enough plot lines into a blender to get from one Buffett hit to the next. Even so, when the musical opens March 15, Buffett knows Parrotheads will come flocking.

The singer sees his own musical future that way, too: hopping from one tour destination to the next, only pausing to get his hands on a frozen concoction. At 71, Buffett plans to keep going as long as he can have fun and hit the high notes.

"I'm looking up the road and at 75 you got Sir Paul [McCartney] and Mick [Jagger] and then at 80 you got Willie [Nelson], and at 91, Tony Bennett," he says. "So I'm not going anywhere, except up that road as long as I can."

Hear the full conversation with NPR's David Greene at the audio link.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, I was in New York City recently. I was there to see a final rehearsal for a new Broadway show. It's a show about a beach bum who lives on this tropical island. He plays the guitar, and he sings for tourists covered in oil.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE")

JIMMY BUFFETT: (Singing) Nibbling on sponge cake watching the sun bake.

GREENE: OK, maybe that's not the voice you were expecting. Maybe this was...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARGARITAVILLE")

BUFFETT: (Singing) Wasting away again in Margaritaville, searching for my lost shaker of salt.

GREENE: That is Jimmy Buffett singing his most famous song. The first version you heard was a dream come true for Buffett, his own Broadway musical. It is called "Escape To Margaritaville."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Wasting away again in Margaritaville.

BUFFETT: (Singing) Yes, I am. Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

I still can't actually believe this is happening sometimes. You know, it's been a long road (laughter).

GREENE: I was sitting with Jimmy Buffett up in the balcony of the Marquis Theatre on Broadway. Down below, technicians were inflating beach balls, which in true Buffett style, are dropped on theatergoers' heads at the end of the show. Jimmy Buffett has been going at it since the 1960s. That's when he began as a country singer. But after he moved to Key West, he built a career celebrating that beach bum lifestyle. Back in the old days, he may have really lived that easygoing life. Today, Buffett is a busy multimillionaire. His so-called parrothead fans - some wearing their cheeseburger hats - fill stadiums. Buffett markets everything from blenders to lost shakers of salt. His music, maybe like this Broadway show, is not for everyone. Buffett doesn't just admit that, I think he's proud of it.

BUFFETT: I had to have people that understood the culture. There were great writers who write for Broadway exclusively that really were interesting and I liked their work, but none of them were real parrotheads.

GREENE: What is the culture, for people who are not parrotheads? Like, what - how do you define it?

BUFFETT: It's just escapism, you know. And it's fun and getting away from the rigors of real life.

GREENE: That's what you're doing for people.

BUFFETT: These days, I think we need it more than ever.

GREENE: You think there's some rigors out there?

BUFFETT: I think people need a little fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Pour me something tall and strong. Make it a hurricane before I go insane. It's only half past 12, but I don't care. It's 5 o'clock somewhere.

GREENE: Yeah, Jimmy Buffett has always been about helping us escape the pressures of life, even if just for one night at a concert. The new musical, I mean, it's not very deep. It's basically Buffett and his writers throwing some plotlines into a blender, just enough to get you from one Buffett hit to the next.

BUFFETT: What then I had to do was like take a song. Like I'll give you, for instance, so "Changes In Latitudes" now is sung by the two female leads.

GREENE: Yeah. It was lovely. It took a little getting used to because I'm so used to your voice, but it was...

BUFFETT: Like being on the Enterprise and these people that you've written songs about who are imaginary beam aboard and there they are. They're actors, yes, but this is as close to creating an actual Margaritaville as there's ever really been.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "ESCAPE TO MARGARITAVILLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) Knowing Rick (ph) likes me the way that I am reminds me there's some really good men. Visions of he and I having some pleasure make me want to come back again. It's those changes in latitudes, changes in latitudes. Nothing remains quite the same. Through all of the islands and all of the highlands, if we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane.

GREENE: Who are you making music for?

BUFFETT: I make them for the audience. I'll make it for the crowd, the paying customer.

GREENE: But make sense of the paradox to me that you are, I mean, a massively successful business. The Margaritaville brand, you know, it is hugely commercial.

BUFFETT: Yeah.

GREENE: Are you a different person if you've gone commercial?

BUFFETT: Well, I'm not Ron Popeil, you know. So I can sell you a blender, but I'm not going to sell you a Vegematic. I'll tell you how smart a business mind I am not is that I had no idea that Margaritaville could be a business entity because I didn't own the trademark to the restaurant. Some guy in California trademarked Margaritaville as a restaurant.

GREENE: Before you could trademark?

BUFFETT: And I can't have the name. Of course, I've tried to buy it back, but he won't sell it.

GREENE: Is there ever a personal tension there like when you see your name over on so many things like, you know, am I still the beach bum, you know, growing up...

BUFFETT: I think I'm still living the Jimmy Buffett life. I make time. The work-to-play ratio is I think what's important. And it's not a demand for products. It's a demand for a feeling that we need - you need to get away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE PARTICULAR HARBOUR")

BUFFETT: But there's this one particular harbor, so far but yet so near, where I see the days as they fade away and finally disappear.

GREENE: There's a moment in every concert, and it sticks with me every time you get there. It's when you're singing "Son Of A Son Of A Sailor," and you sing, I'm just glad I don't live in a trailer. And you always say something like, I've been there. And I always interpret that as like you trying to say to people like, wherever you are, I'm still a guy you can connect with.

BUFFETT: You know, it's actually out - when I wrote the line, it's the fact that it was that I spent some miserable days in trailers in college. We were in a band. And we were, you know, we were living hand-to-mouth daily. And so it came to the point where we either - we couldn't pay both the gas bill and the electric bill. So we only paid the electric bill. And we spent money on electric blankets. And we lived with extension cords and electric blankets while we rehearsed. That I don't want to go back to (laughter). And that's what that line was about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SON OF A SON OF A SAILOR")

BUFFETT: (Singing) The sea's in my veins. My tradition remains. I'm just glad I don't live in a trailer.

Been there, done that, got that T-shirt.

GREENE: OK. You made it to Broadway. Is there anything else on the bucket list?

BUFFETT: You know, at 71, I'm looking up the road. You know, at 75, you got Sir Paul and Mick. I'm watching them 'cause I - we see each other occasionally.

GREENE: They're like a little ahead of you, so you see what happens.

BUFFETT: Yeah. And then 80, you got Willie. And in 91, Tony Bennett. So I'm not going anywhere except up that road as long as I can. You know, and I haven't tuned down a half a step yet.

GREENE: Tuned down happens when you - that's the first song that your voice is starting to...

BUFFETT: When you can't hit the high notes. Yeah. So I'm not there yet, no.

GREENE: Well, there you go. Jimmy Buffett, a real pleasure. Best of luck with the show.

BUFFETT: Thank you so much. Hey, thank you for having me here.

GREENE: Jimmy Buffett. His new Broadway musical's called "Escape To Margaritaville," and it opens tonight in the heart of New York City.

Parking is pretty terrible in midtown Manhattan. I mean, you're going to have parrotheads who are flocking to the show who are thinking that there's going to be like some tailgating space to hang out all day.

BUFFETT: There's stairs. It's vertical tailgating.

GREENE: Oh, nice.

BUFFETT: We got the hotel. Why you think we're here? (Laughter).

GREENE: All right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.