Alison Luff and Paul Alexander Nolan in the musical Escape to Margaritaville

Christopher Ashley on Creating Escape to Margaritaville

When Tony Award–winning director Christopher Ashley signed on to helm Escape to Margaritaville, a new musical featuring the songs of beloved troubadour and author Jimmy Buffett, he was not yet a full-fledged Parrot Head — the term applied to the most devout followers of Buffett’s rootsy, Caribbean-flavored pop.

“I had long been a Jimmy Buffett fan,” Ashley notes. “I probably knew about 40 of his songs. But now it’s more like 400.”

For Ashley, working on Escape to Margaritaville — following runs in Chicago, Houston, and New Orleans and a world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, where Ashley is artistic director — has been revelatory in a number of ways. Not the least of which is the process of getting to know Buffett’s most ardent fans: “In all the cities we’ve been to, we’ve been lucky enough to have a Parrot Head community, people who have seen him in concert so many times and really know and love his music, and bring this big, festive energy.”

Such devotees have consistently mixed with “more experienced theatergoers,” Buffett says, “to forge this great community, where both parts give me their feedback.”

Further insights have been provided by Buffett himself, who, despite his relentless road schedule, has consistently found time to fly in and consult with Ashley and book writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley — and to occasionally join cast members onstage during curtain call, and perform with them. “You would think this from listening to his music, but he has so much fun being him,” Ashley says of Buffett.

The singer/songwriter is, at the same time, “incredibly artistically adventurous.” When Ashley has run a series of options past Buffett, “his answer is always, ‘Let’s try it.’ Guys who have been working with him for decades are orchestrating it, and they’ve been really open to us re-envisioning the songs to use them in a theatrical context.”

Ashley and Escape to Margaritaville’s librettists decided early on to craft an original story for the musical. “We didn’t want to lean on his life story, or the plot of one of his novels. We wanted to do something fresh, but inspired by the world of his songs and his writing. I feel like his songs have a really broad palette, from celebratory beach-party music to these very introspective songs, where there’s a real sadness and a sense of, Is this the life I really wanted?” Ashley says. “He’s a storyteller. You’re not just dealing with a pop hook sung over and over again. That wide spectrum made every color and flavor and mood available to us.”

Escape to Margaritaville is set on the titular island, a vacation destination where tourists and locals meet and mix. The plot involves Tully, played by Paul Alexander Nolan (Bright Star, Once), whom Ashley describes, when we meet the character, as “a beach bum who lives from day to day.” That is, until he meets Rachel, played by Alison Luff (Matilda The Musical, Les Misérables), “a scientist who really wants to make the world a better place.” There’s another couple, and both relationships inform the first act’s final number, which is the title song, probably Buffett’s most famous tune.

“That was a really satisfying moment, figuring out how to use ‘Margaritaville,’” Ashley recalls. “People think of it as a party song, but if you really listen to the lyrics, it’s a song about loss. So at this point in the show, you have two relationships that have fallen apart. The song starts off very still, with the lead character singing solo and playing guitar. Then it builds and builds,” until near the end, “you see a new round of tourists coming in, and you sense the hollowness at the center as they start to pile in and have a good time.”

Ashley notes that Escape to Margaritaville, which he plans to take on tour eventually, is a very different piece than Come From Away, the original musical that earned him his Tony earlier this year. But he allows that the latter show, set in a Canadian town that hosts and embraces a plane full of travelers grounded on September 11, shares with Margaritaville “a certain optimism in showing people who come together and form a community.”

That’s an especially necessary message in the current political climate, Ashley observes. “The idea that weaves through Escape to Margaritaville is that, despite all the difficulties life will present to us, it’s our job to find joy and love, now. Grab joy by the horns. It’s a great story to be telling in this exact moment, when so many people are fighting and leaning into the differences between us. Anything that pulls us together instead — I’m for that.”

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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