Put “Mamma Mia!” and “The Book of Mormon” in a blender and soon it will render the frozen concoction that is “Escape to Margaritaville,” the new jukebox musical featuring the hits of Sag Harbor’s own Jimmy Buffett.
“We wanted to create a show that’s fun for both Parrotheads [hard-core Buffett fans] and people who might walk in knowing only one or two of his songs but care about a theater story well told,” says Tony Award-winning director Christopher Ashley (“Come From Away”).
The show, which opens Thursday, March 15, at the Marquis Theatre in Manhattan, is a romantic comedy romp laced with all the “songs you know by heart,” as Buffett calls them. The story, written by TV veterans Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley (both of “My Name Is Earl”), focuses on workaholic environmental scientist Rachel (Alison Luff) and her lighthearted friend Tammy (Lisa Howard) who go on a girls trip to a Caribbean island just before Tammy is about to marry her dimwitted boyfriend Chadd (Ian Michael Stuart). The duo ends up at a rundown resort of sorts called Margaritaville where the colorful staff likes to party as much as the guests. During their stay, Rachel falls for charismatic bar singer Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan) while Tammy connects with a fun-loving bartender named Brick (Eric Petersen). During the trip, the ladies make discoveries that change the paths of their lives.
The show has been in the works for several years, going through changes in a workshop phase and then a four-city tour to San Diego, Chicago, New Orleans and Houston before coming to Broadway.
“The fundamental Buffett nature of it has always been there,” says Mike Millan, who grew up in Bay Shore and who has played the beach bum Jesús plus other characters in the show since the beginning of production. “It started off as a zany, campy show about the Buffett experience and now it’s focused on the actual story of Tully and Rachel.”
Songs like “Margaritaville,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “Fins” and “Volcano” are some of the Buffett classics that make up the score.
“His songs run the gamut from very exuberant ones that make you want to sing and dance to soulful ballads about loss and sadness,” Ashley says. “He sort of gives you the full arsenal of tools to play with.”
The character of Tully has a Buffett-like essence. Buffett even provided some on-site training with Nolan by gigging with him at the Green Turtle Inn in the Florida Keys.
“He wanted me to have that bar experience where everyone is loud and yelling while he was playing a concert,” Nolan says. “It’s a pretty effective, fun way to start getting prepared.”
Although Tully evokes Buffett in tone and attitude, he’s not meant to be a clone.
“I didn’t set out to mimic Jimmy but subconsciously it happens,” Nolan says. “He is so part of his music that when you sing his lyrics, it does something to you.”
Throughout the creative process of putting the musical together, Buffett didn’t just license his songs to be utilized; he was hands-on.
“Jimmy was involved in the planning, picking what songs to be used, re-lyricizing old material and writing new songs,” says associate music director Lon Hoyt, who grew up in Seaford. “He knows everyone’s name in the cast, and when they come offstage, he’s high-fiving everybody. He’s like your favorite uncle.”
Ashley adds, “Jimmy has been an extraordinary spirit guide. He is exactly what you would hope Jimmy Buffett would be — all positivity, totally adventurous. Whenever we have an idea, he says, ‘Let’s try it!’ ”
The jukebox musical concept, using hit music of a popular artist or group in a theatrical setting, has become a Broadway staple, but it’s not always a critical favorite.
“ ‘Commercial theater’ are these dreaded words people seem to be really scared of, but commercial theater has always been a part of Broadway; it’s how it stays alive,” Millan says. “A jukebox musical is the perfect commercial project. People want to be entertained and not necessarily always feel like they have be reminded of the cruelty of the world.”
The driving force of the Buffett fan base has always been strong and continues to expand, making the Parrothead vibe almost impossible to resist.
“The Parrotheads embody the spirit of ‘It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,’ so let’s have a good time,” Howard says. “That kind of spirit has really trickled down to us as a company.”
The crowds in New York have been 30 percent to 40 percent Parrotheads, according to Hoyt, who show up decked out in Hawaiian shirts, leis and Mardi Gras beads.
“This is not quite ‘The Rocky Horror Show,’ but people who have been to a Buffett concert still think they are going to see a Buffett concert. There just happens to be a show around it,” Hoyt says.
The preshow scene at the Marquis Theatre is a colorful one, with tiki lights draped about the lobby as guests rest in Adirondack chairs sipping drinks such as a Juicy Fruit Piña-Rita ($16), and signs saying “Put on Your Barefoot Shoes” and “Work (with a line through it)” are prominently displayed, creating a chill-out atmosphere.
Allen Kantorowitz, who grew up in Plainview, has been a die-hard Parrothead since the ’70s. He has even met Buffett as the singer handed out free cheeseburgers to people who waited in line when tickets for the musical first went on sale in January.
“Shows like this are two hours of escapism. To me, it’s the way you wish life could be,” says Kantorowitz, 56, proudly wearing a “Buffett for President” button and carrying a mini inflatable shark into the theater. “Jimmy symbolizes the way most people want to live — stress-free, sipping a frozen drink on a beach with a parrot on your shoulder singing songs.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Jensen of South Huntington enters the theater in a bright Caribbean-blue suit decorated with green palm trees and hot-pink beach umbrellas.
“Jimmy came from humble roots, therefore I connect with him,” says Jensen, 56. “He adds a little relaxation to my day.”
Inside the theater, there’s an unspoken dialogue going on between the Parrotheads and the typical theatergoing audience.
“The Parrotheads bring in this exuberance and the theatergoers bring in this focus,” Ashley says. “Without even thinking about it, they sort of negotiate a way to watch the show together that is exuberantly focused.”
Throughout the show, the crowd does more than clap after each number. They have a tendency to sing along to each familiar tune and in some cases dance, sidestepping the typical Broadway decorum.
“There’s a section in the show where we give you permission to sing along during ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk,’ ” Howard says. “I think at that point, the theatergoers get on board, and by the end [of the show] everybody is doing ‘fins to the left, fins to the right.’ ”
Upon exiting the theater, Ashley wants the crowd to leave uplifted with a sense of hope.
“They should walk out feeling joyful and empowered to grab the joys of their life right that minute,” he says, “eager to pursue their own passions and dreams.”
WHAT “Escape to Margaritaville”
WHEN | WHERE 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays (6:30 p.m. March 15), Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St.
INFO $59-$249; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com