Escape to Margaritaville, the new Broadway musical featuring the music of Jimmy Buffett, might not be this season’s darling for critics. But critics be damned! While most shows currently on the boards reflect a somber tone, audiences have fully embraced this frothy show about sun, love, and relaxation.
Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley, who penned the book, both plunged into the waters of stage writing after years of writing for television. The L.A. based, Emmy Award-winning scribes continue to work in Hollywood and recently spoke with Manhattan Digest about their first Broadway experience.
MD: I assume you met doing television’s Yes, Dear?
MO: Yes. We did 122 episodes of Yes, Dear and after that, Greg and I worked together on My Name is Earl. I had written a TV pilot inspired by the music of Jimmy Buffett. They told me that they wanted to adapt a stage show based on his music. The first person I thought of was Greg. I called him up and here we are!
MD: How did Escape to Margaritaville evolve? Did you look at Buffett’s whole catalog and base the story around certain songs or did you create the story first?
MO: We knew what songs needed to be in it. The first thing is that we wanted the songs to be sung by characters who had a meaningful connection to each song. We actually created characters based on the songs. For example, we turned “Cheeseburger In Paradise” into a sort of anthem for positive body image. After we listened to “He Went to Paris”, we created the character of J.D. We really wanted the songs to drive the story forward.
GG: We also knew that we didn’t want a biographical musical. Jimmy (Buffett) came to us and wanted specific songs in it. We learned a lot from Beth Williams and Anita Waxman who have produced quite a bit of Broadway. Plus we had Chris Ashley, a Tony award-winning director. When he told us we had to cut something, we listened. We had great teachers in that sense.
MD: How much did you whittle down from the first draft to what we see now?
GG: Oh! It’s wildly different. The first draft had only 8 songs in it. This was a 4-year process. As we started to grasp what was possible, so much changed.
MO: We had backstories of characters that were cut and other characters whose stories became more prominent.
MD: Did you have an interest or passion for musical theater or did this project just fall into your lap given your relationship with Jimmy Buffett?
MO: I grew up listening to musical theater and performing it in college. I was in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Grease, Working, Follies and a bunch of other shows. When I moved to New York, I started writing plays that ended up being published by Samuel French. It was something that I always dreamed of doing. When you’re presented with the opportunity to work with someone like Jimmy Buffett, you don’t say no. I thought it would be really fun and wouldn’t be heavy material. At the time, I was writing for Shameless and Survivor’s Remorse. Escape to Margaritaville is not either of those! .
GG: My son is a theater major at Boston University. At 3, he went to see The Lion King and never looked back. So, there was a lot of theater in my life. I thought it would be a great side project and have a foot in both worlds.
MD: What are the differences between writing for stage and television?
MO: One of the things is that, in television, you can write something the night before and you’re only shooting a few pages the next day. Every take doesn’t have to be perfect. With a live musical, the actors have to carry so much on their shoulders and remember the changes for the whole show.
GG: In tv writing, it’s just me. In theater, there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen–But it’s much more collaborative.
MD: Who is easier to work with: Hollywood types or Broadway types?
GG: Well, I’m currently working in Hollywood, so I’ll say Hollywood. When I go back to Broadway, I’ll say Broadway. I’m no dummy. (laughs). No. everybody is easy to work with, really. Mike and I are both pretty laid back guys. It’s really just about the work and how to make it better. We’re always laughing and having fun.
MO: I think the best thing about both types is that you’re all going after the same goal. The audience has a great time. In the end, everyone applauds each other and wonders how they can improve it. That kind of camaraderie is a rare experience. To work in show business and have that experience is really great.
GG: One of my biggest takeaways is the talent on Broadway. When you see what they do on a nightly basis, it’s so impressive. I can’t say enough about that.
MD: One of the things in this show that impressed me was the strong feminist aspect. Did you decide early on to make that a focus?
GG: I don’t think it was conscious actually. If you look at my past work and Mike’s past work, you’ll find a lot of strong female characters there. It comes from having strong mothers, wives, and daughters.
MO: It’s not surprising to us, really. That’s who we hang out with and are married to.
GG: Even on the creative side, I’ve worked with Jaime Pressly, Martha Plimpton, and Margo Martindale. There are no stronger three women than them.
MO: And I’ve had the joy of working with the ladies from Survivor’s Remorse: Tichina Arnold, Erica Ash, and Teyonah Parris. If you don’t have a grasp of strong women after working with them for 4 years….Greg is exactly right. These ladies don’t take any guff from anybody!
MD: So what’s next for you guys?
GG: Right now, I’m getting ready to go into production for the 2nd season of The Guest Book on TBS. It was the #1 new cable comedy last year. I’m jumping right from theater to production and writing and directing the show .
MO: I just finished The Snowpiercer which premieres on TNT this summer and another show, Wayne on Youtube Red, which will be launching this as their first narrative series. I’m happy to be back with my family?
MD: Any more theater projects?
MO: I loved working on Escape to Margaritaville, but the hard thing when you don’t live in New York is to be so far away from your family. You have to really be there to write a musical on Broadway.
GG: I was really glad for it too, but it does take you away from other obligations.
MD: What do you hope is the takeaway for Escape to Margaritaville?
GG: I just hope they have fun. With television, you can’t tell how people are receiving what you’ve written from their living rooms. With theatre, you can sit in the space and hear the response. I want people to leave with big smiles on their faces. One of our favorite things to do is to read the production reports after the show and hear how much audiences have enjoyed it.
MO: I also think that people have revisited Jimmy’s music from this. Being able to watch Jimmy be so embraced by the performers and the audience has been so gratifying.
GG: Plus, this show has really brought out people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to the theater.
MO: We wrote this show for people who just want to fun. If you don’t wanna have fun, don’t go see this thing! (laughs)
MD: That’s a good way to wrap up. I sat through 7 hours of Angels in America and was provoked, outraged, and challenged. And then I sat through Escape to Margaritaville and had a blast. I think there is a place for both.
MO: Well, I think there would be a lot more fair criticism if we had done a version of Angels in America with Jimmy Buffet’s music (laughs).
MD: (Laughs) I’m thinking of all the song options that you’d have for that and I’m comin’ up short.
GG: Thanks for having a nice conversation with us about the work. We really appreciate it.
MD: Sure! We wish you all the best and I look forward to your continued and upcoming projects.
Escape to Margaritaville plays an open-ended run at the Marquis Theater (210 West 46th Street, inside the Marriott Marquis Theater). For tickets, visit the box office or click here.