“Jimmy Buffett’s music has such a wide range and a wide palette that he composes to—from very celebratory music that makes you want to start dancing and expresses joy, to very soulful songs about loss and people whose lives have not turned out the way they had hoped,” says director Christopher Ashley. “That wide range felt to me that you can tell a complicated human story with the songs as your arsenal.”
That story takes shape in Ashley’s latest Broadway outing: Escape to Margaritaville, the new musical featuring the Jimmy Buffett songbook which officially opened March 15 at the Marquis Theatre. Ashley, 53, won the 2017 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Come From Away, which deals with the 7,000 airplane passengers stranded on 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, and the Gander residents who cared for them.
His Broadway credits include the 2009 Tony-winning musical Memphis, Leap of Faith, Xanadu, All Shook Up, and the 2000 revival of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Since 2007, he has been artistic director of California’s La Jolla Playhouse. In the last year, several shows have transferred from the Playhouse to Broadway, among them Come From Away (at the Schoenfeld Theatre), Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, and now Escape to Margaritaville. Here, he shares lesser known stories from his career, his new musical, the way he directs, his Tony Award, running La Jolla, and his future plans.
Why he became a director:
“As a kid I really enjoyed performing. There was a little summer theatre in a town where I spent a lot of time in grade school called the Cortland [New York] Repertory Theatre. I was never a very good actor, but I loved acting. [But] I realized I can’t fully get out of my head. I am always thinking about how I should be doing this, as opposed to just doing it. And there was some moment I realized I’m more interested in thinking about creating theatre.
“So I started directing in high school [at Andover]. I was a nonstop director at Yale. It was a very hot time at the grad drama school as well, which I did not go to but took a lot of classes there. Tina Landau was there and Jodie Foster. That was my launch. I always thought it was going to be an amazing hobby. But after about 18 months of being a systems analyst at a bank I was pretty hungry to get back to it.
“It’s seductive making theatre. What other job do you get to use every bit of yourself and your emotions and your creativity and your visual imagination and—if you do musicals—your background in music and scoring and rhythm? And all the psychology that you know. It’s such a complicated job that once you start falling in love with it everything else pales a bit.”
How he creates longevity in his career:
“I feel like one of the things you have to be able to tolerate is that no career just kind of goes from success to success. You have real high moments and then sometimes you have to swim back out and catch the next wave. But if you’re surrounded by people you care about and you think are major artists, I can’t think of a better life.”
His principles of directing:
“I’m sure that other people who sat in my rehearsals would say that there are some, but I don’t know that there’s any. As soon as I think there’s a rule, I think I should break it. I do try to select material for myself that keeps on challenging me and keeps on making every show distinct. If I get sent a script that’s very similar to something I’ve already done I tend to put it away. I resist rules.”
An actor in his rehearsal room—an example of how he directs:
“In the audition process, I try to create moments where I’m throwing adjustments at them and I see how nimble they are at processing new ideas and new objectives and new obstacles. So I hopefully end up with a cast that is directable and flexible and enjoys discovery, as opposed to those actors who like to have it all figured out as early as possible and lock that down. I really care about a company that supports each other. I do tend to take really seriously that if I get a sense from the audition process that that person’s probably not a great company member, I don’t tend to cast them. I tend to cast people who help create a safe space for each other.
“In the rehearsal process I try to create a balance of the most clarity I can give them about why we’re telling the story, what the style of the story is, and which story point we’re in the middle of in this scene. What has to get accomplished in this scene. I always want to be really clear about what are we after, and I always want to leave space, especially at the beginning of the process, for a lot of discovery on their part. It’s okay to go down blind alleys, it’s okay to make spectacularly wrong decisions along the way, in the service of arriving at something unexpected and bold and exactly right.”
A mistake he made that he learned from:
“In terms of in the rehearsal room, I love that every actor is a fresh puzzle. I am often amused, in retrospect, by one actress I worked with very early in my career. I was very influenced by Harold Clurman and obstacle and objective, that vocabulary. I would always ask, ‘What do you want in a scene, what are your obstacles?’ And one actress, every time I would ask that question would say, ‘It’s too early to talk about that.’ I kept asking. And then late in the last week of rehearsal I asked about some moment, ‘What do you want in this moment?’ and she said, ‘It’s too late to talk about that.’ And I thought, ‘You are diabolically clever about not being directed.’
“It’s always too early or too late. Through time, I have developed a better skill set in how do we make sure that we always talk about it and we never avoid talking about it.”
A decision he made that paid off:
“When I did the play Jeffrey [by Paul Rudnick, 1993] I was not really out to my family and in the press particularly, and I decided, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do this play about fear in the middle of AIDS, the closet should not be part of it.’ When I said yes to the play, the next day I was calling my grandmother who I’d never talked to about it, and I finished coming out of the closet to everyone. That was clearly the only possible way to direct that play. It was in such an urgent conversation with the AIDS plague so that if the director was at all closeted that wouldn’t have worked. So that was a no-brainer but major for me at the time.
I’d say that the first decision you make on a play, if you stick with it, trusting your first instincts can be really powerful. On Come From Away, the first time I ever thought about how to stage it, talking to Kelly Devine, the choreographer, the first sentence out of my mouth was, could we stage this with 12 chairs and two tables, and that’s it. It was so much my first impulse about it, and I doubted it at several later times and thought I was going to add more frills. But we stuck with it and it’s one of the things I’m proudest about—how simple the staging is, and, therefore, how much that event is about people and their stories.”
About his Tony Award:
“It’s 100 percent a great feeling. I did not expect to get it, partly because the other directors in my category had done such great work that was really appreciated by the world. While I was walking up to the podium I was really wishing I had written a speech, because it’s not something you want to punt on if you can help it. I have to say that almost a year later, the thing I did not expect was that as you walk through the streets of New York and San Diego, everyone beams good will at you. And that’s a really amazing experience—people are so happy for you. The warmth that comes at you is an extraordinary feeling.”
About Escape to Margaritaville:
“It’s been a really fun experience almost every day for several years. Most days Jimmy Buffett is there, largely barefoot, always with a smile on his face and having a very exuberant, adventurous, let’s create a show mood. He doesn’t work from fear at all. He works from a very let’s try it place. It’s an original story but very much leaning into the world of Jimmy’s songs and novels and short stories. There’s a wild theatricality co-existing with a love story with some real heart.”
Running La Jolla Playhouse, and its Broadway connection:
“In terms of the impact on the American theatre scene and what New Yorkers see, it’s been an amazing period at La Jolla. But I would say that my primary goal in how I program La Jolla Playhouse is to create often new plays and musicals for the San Diego audience and to try to develop a real home for exciting artists who, I think, have something to say in the world at this moment. The New York connection has been an amazing bonus [but the key is] are we making plays with exciting artists and are we giving them a home and are we bringing new, important stories into the world?”
“Come From Away will be very much in my life for the next several years. We’re going to shoot a movie of it. We’re planning a first national tour and a U.K. production and Australia. I’ve just signed a contract for another three years at La Jolla Playhouse, so that will very much be a part of my future.
“So many aspects of American society are coming apart at the seams at this moment, and it feels like theatre has more of a necessary function to play than at any time in my lifetime. And the way that theatre can bring people together and create community in that room, and the way that live performance can bond a group of people and teach us about the commonality of our experience—there’s nothing I would want to be doing now other than making theatre. I think it’s an extraordinary answer to some of the complicated fractures in our world right now.”