Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Jimmy Buffett and Christopher Ashley in Conversation with Chris Jones
Broadway Playhouse
Review by John Olson

Also see John's review of Hir

Chris Jones, Jimmy Buffett, and Christopher Ashley
Photo Courtesy of Chicago Tribune
It was a shrewd business move to sell tickets to what was essentially a press conference for the upcoming fall Chicago engagement of the Broadway-bound jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville, but the sellout crowd of some 550 "Parrotheads" (including this writer) were thrilled to be there whatever the cost. Surely all in attendance had seen Jimmy Buffett in concert at some time—many (again, including this writer) had been among the 41,000 at his concert at Chicago's Wrigley Field two days earlier and relished the chance to be up close and personal with their favorite pied piper for a mere $35.00. Though I had a press comp courtesy of the Tribune, I would have gladly paid the $35.00 as well for the chance to get closer to this venerable singer-songwriter than I had been since seeing the then-unknown from a front row seat in 1975.

For the first half hour of the 70-minute talk (preceded by a reception featuring tortilla chips and Margaritaville brand salsa, Chicago Tribune chief theatre critic Chris Jones covered a variety of topics regarding Buffett's career. Among them, the 70-year-old proponent of "Growing Older, But Not Up" (to cite a song he wrote in 1980 at age 34 or so) and his plans to introduce Margaritaville retirement communities complete with medical marijuana.

It was in 1974 that Buffett had written a song called "A Pirate Looks at Forty," a title he adapted into his memoir "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," published in hardcover in 1998 after his own fiftieth birthday. Today, that pirate is looking at 70—and while he's a great looking 70, there's no denying this Peter Pan, like all of us, has gotten older. Not that you'd know it from his work schedule. He has continued to tour, doing three dates a week. "I see myself as mainly a tour performer," he told the audience, despite a recording career that ha included 27 studio albums in 47 years. And asked by Jones if he had plans to retire, he quickly responded with a "No," and told the story of an 80-year-old Willie Nelson answering the same question with "From what?"

I'd always wondered about the apparent contradictions between the persona of this writer who promotes relaxation and recreation amid such an active touring and recording schedule. (When does he have time to write, by the way?). This talk gave the hint of an answer. While Buffett was relaxed and witty in conversation with Jones—and entirely consistent with his public image—he showed a shrewdness that was not in the least surprising. He knows his fans and his market, noting how he dare not leave out the 10 or so hit songs his fans demand of every concert. Mentioning that he's heard other singers complain about having to perform their hit songs over and over, he gave the audience an incredulous look and a hypothetical retort to those singers of "how's that working for you?"

After Ashley, who is directing the musical, joined Jones and Buffett on stage, he and Buffett promised audiences they would get the songs they expect in Escape to Margaritaville. While a song list from the show's first tryout at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego has been published on the internet, Ashley said the musical numbers are still in flux. Some standards have since been cut, others added, and Buffett has written three new songs for the show. Buffett noted that watching a performance in San Diego, he realized "I'd never been to a Jimmy Buffett concert" (from the audience's perspective, obviously).

Buffett said his long-time band members have been involved with the orchestrations to maintain fidelity to the original sound while adapting it for a musical theater pit orchestra. There will also be some revisions of the lyrics to suit the characters and dramatic context, and Buffett noted with pleasure the delight he experiences seeing the songs delivered in a new story context. Many of his lyrics are written from a man's point of view, unsurprisingly, but have been assigned to women in the book by TV sitcom writers Greg Garcia and Mike O'Malley. The story concerns two women from Cincinnati at a tropical resort called Margaritaville, where they are romanced by two of the male resort employees. (Sounds like the business-savvy Mr. Buffett and his producers know which gender buys most of the theater tickets).

Perhaps the most insightful anecdotes from Buffett were his stories of his early years in the music industry, when his recording label had a certain image in mind and wanted to market him as a traditional country singer. He told the audience how that was comfortable for a time, but he ultimately rebelled against it, instead drawing on the "Mardi Gras" heritage of his Gulf Coast upbringing, where there was always a party somewhere, and created a new image truer to himself. We don't have to ask how that's worked out for him.

Though it's tempting to be cynical about a franchise as successful as Buffett's creative output and its allied industries (i.e. Margaritaville restaurants, gift shops, salsa, and retirement communities), there's no denying the resonance of his lyrics and the visceral good feelings his music generates. His Parrothead audience seems to be mostly middle to upper-middle class professionals who have hopes of a work-life balance and have difficulty maintaining it. I don't think his fans live in a perpetual Margaritaville, and maybe he never has either. He knows what it looks like, though, and through his lyrics so do we.

This conversation took place at the Broadway Playhouse in Chicago on July 17, 2017. Escape to Margaritaville is scheduled to play the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans October 20-28, 2017; the Hobby Center in Houston October 31 - November 5, 2017, the Oriental Theatre in Chicago from November 9 - December 2, 2017, and is set to open on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre in February 2018.

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