Writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley may be Broadway newcomers, but they’re old hats at comedy. Having written for shows like Family Matters and created series like Yes, Dear and My Name Is Earl, Garcia knows a thing or two about crafting a joke and O’Malley, an actor on Yes, Dear and Glee, knows about timing and execution.
Escape to Margaritaville embraces Buffett’s laissez faire philosophy: Set at the Margaritaville resort, tourists flock for week-long getaways soaked in alcohol poured by Brick the bartender (Eric Petersen) and submerged in the sweet sounds of the hotel’s bar singer Tully (Paul Alexander Nolan). Marley (Rema Webb) runs the destination spot and welcomes workaholic environmentalist Rachel (Alison Luff) and her best friend Tammy (Lisa Howard) for Tammy’s bachelorette spree. But things don’t go according to plan when ladies’ man Tully falls for Rachel, sparks fly between Brick and Tammy, and the island’s volcano threatens to decimate Margaritaville.
When puzzle-piecing Jimmy Buffett’s music catalog into a musical comedy, the duo left bread crumbs throughout the script leading up to punchlines already baked into the lyrics of Buffett’s tunes. It might seem obvious when the jokes land, but determining which lyrics to use was no small task. Here, the two guide us through the setups to four of the most iconic tunes in Broadway’s original musical Escape to Margaritaville.
Nibblin’ on sponge cake…
Our director Christopher Ashley was usually the person who was suggesting we add, omit, or cut certain references. His experience having directed so many new musicals was something we leaned on for guidance. “Margaritaville” being Jimmy Buffet’s most famous song, we thought it was so important to have all of the lyrics. We thought in setting up that song, and the lyrics in that song, almost everything had to work.
Searchin’ for my, lost shaker of salt
We knew we wanted to end Act 1 with “Margaritaville.” We wanted to involve as many people as we could in the performance of that number. I think it was after we were looking for opportunities for people to sing different lyrics in that song was when we retroactively found the opportunity for JD to be looking for a saltshaker earlier on in the show. One of the things we wanted to do was find a way to organically fit this lyric in a song that was mournful. We recognized the opportunity for JD to have a moment of levity and a laugh inside a song that was one of Tully feeling heartbroken.
You guzzle gin, commit a little mortal sin
This was another song, this time for Brick, where the lyrics were so specific that we had to reference those being things that he really liked. At one point we had him saying, “I love drinking gin by the waterfall,” because he sings about enjoying gin in that song. We ended up omitting that in our final show, not only because we couldn’t have a waterfall on set, but because we didn’t think it was that important at the end of the day.
“Cheeseburger in Paradise”
Tried to amend my carnivorous habits, made it nearly 70 days, losin’ weight without speed
We knew this song was gonna be our “11 o’clock” number, so we knew we had to build toward that very early on in the process. It’s a big, energetic song. We knew it was gonna be a big dance number, and we knew it was gonna be Tammy's “anthem.” It was probably one of the first scenes we wrote, her fiancé being on her about watching her diet while she went to the vacation island. We knew that we needed conflict both between her and her fiancé and her own personal journey.
Not zucchini, fettucini, or bulgur wheat
That was not always obvious to us that Tammy’s fiancé would serve trays of those foods for her at their rehearsal dinner. In terms of the lyrics and what Jimmy was thinking about altering, adjusting, highlighting, etc.—that was usually a conversation between us, Chris Ashley, and Jimmy. Over the four years of this process, it changed often.
“Tin Cup Chalice”
Wanna go back down and get high by the sea there
With a tin cup for a chalice, fill it up with good red wine
We knew that we had to use the songs. And in the examination of songs, so many of which are story songs, we would look at those and try to sift through for specific “clues,” as they were, to pay something off. We looked at Jimmy’s 12–15 most popular songs, and we tried to put all of them somewhere in the musical. When we knew that Tully was gonna sing a ballad to Rachel at the end of the show to win her heart, and express to her how he had changed, and how he felt they were fated to be together, we chose a song that we then had to have make sense.
Once we knew we were gonna use “Tin Cup Chalice,” we looked at the lyrics and thought to ourselves, “OK, where can we plot these things early on when they first meet so that when he sings it at the end, it makes sense?” We didn’t want to change the song to be “Coffee Cup Chalice” or “Styrofoam Cup Chalice,” and so we thought, “OK, if he’s gonna sing to her the simplicity of honeysuckle and tin cup chalice, and taking in life on an island,” we’re gonna have to write a scene where he sings about that, so he hides a tin cup and a bottle of wine up on the volcano’s peak. This was a particular strength of Greg’s, who was so good at sifting through the lyrics and then figuring out a place to put them.
BONUS: Cut from the script
We started with this as a song that the goons were singing in the first act, where they were talking about how they wished that they were going on vacation too because they pictured themselves as fancy people on a yacht drinking boat drinks, but we realized that getting to Margaritaville Hotel and getting the vacation story started was more important than delaying in Cincinnati to sing another song.
“My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Hate Jesus.”
In the end, we didn’t want our characters to be singing about how they hate Jesus, because we know Jesus is an important religious figure in many people’s lives, and so we tried to think of a way where he could still sing that lyric and, again, have it be humorous. Turns out we found a way without using the whole song.