Jimmy Buffett awoke one morning last year in one of his many homes — he can’t remember which one, there are a lot of them — and a panic gripped him in his throat. His new Broadway musical, “Escape to Margaritaville,” was coming along nicely, but something was off.
It wasn’t the music — they’d been careful to include a finely titrated playlist of crowd pleasers. It wasn’t the book — the TV writers Greg Garcia (“My Name Is Earl,” “Raising Hope”) and Mike O’Malley (“Shameless”) managed to strike a balance of goofy, accessible romantic comedy and some deep cuts for the Parrotheads, as his fans are called. It wasn’t the casting, either; Paul Alexander Nolan is a compelling early-Buffett avatar as Tully Mars, a dreamy bar singer at a rundown Caribbean hotel called Margaritaville. And he was happy with the direction of Christopher Ashley, off a best direction Tony for “Come From Away.”
So what could it be? The writers were refining the characters and their motivations and he felt pretty good about that. The producers were taking great care with the show experience as well; they had decided to deluge the audience with beach balls at the end, which Mr. Buffett thought would be fun and memorable.
But it wasn’t that, either. He searched his mind and his heart and still, nothing. In the shadow of the early morning light across his bedroom in either Palm Beach or St. Barts or Sag Harbor or Los Angeles or Waikiki or New York, Mr. Buffett realized he needed to find the answer.
“He’s Canadian,” Mr. Buffett said. Meaning, I guess, that Mr. Nolan maybe doesn’t know about tans? “Get to a tanning salon,” Mr. Buffett told Mr. Nolan. How could you have a bar singer beach bum in the Caribbean who wasn’t tan? “To me, it’s essential to the part. Tourists in Margaritaville are white and turn red. You need to be tan.” Mr. Nolan agreed and relief coursed through Mr. Buffett’s body. Phew. That was close.
In December, Mr. Buffett was still looking to make the show an even more authentic testament to the lifestyle he created and the escapism he knows his fans want. Previews were to begin at the Marquis Theater on Feb. 16. The show’s pre-Broadway runs in San Diego, New Orleans, Houston and Chicago had been well-received, but he still had concerns. He wanted to figure out another song to add to the mix in the show, but every time he tried to remember what it was really like to be a Tully Mars of the world, he blanked.
He called up his sound guy, who told him he was headed out on a fishing trip. “You’re not going fishing,” Mr. Buffett told him. Mr. Buffett realized that in order to remember his time as Tully Mars, he had to become Tully Mars again.
Mr. Buffett hasn’t stopped touring in his nearly half-century as a performer, but it had been a long time since he did a last-minute set at a bar. He had to get on a stage with a pickup band like in the old days and really get back into the original iteration of Jimmy Buffett.
That night, he went to the original Margaritaville bar in Key West, which he opened in the mid-1980s, unannounced, and played a three-and-a-half-hour set. He told stories between songs. He kept the audience active. It felt good to be back there, remembering who he once was.
Because that, in a coconut shell, was the problem. Jimmy Buffett is not really Jimmy Buffett anymore. He hasn’t been for a while. Jimmy Buffett — the nibbling on sponge cake, watching the sun bake, getting drunk and screwing, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere Jimmy Buffett — has been replaced with a well-preserved businessman who is leveraging the Jimmy Buffett of yore in order to keep the Jimmy Buffett of now in the manner to which the old Jimmy Buffett never dreamed he could become accustomed. And therein lies the Margaritaville® Mesquite BBQ Rub: The more successful you become at selling the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle, the less you are seen as believably living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle.
Who is to say when the chasm between the Jimmy Buffetts became so deep? Probably it was around the first time he put the Margaritaville name on a salt shaker-shaped pool raft labeled “Lost Shaker of Salt.” Or went all-in on a brand partnership to sell a $499.99 Tahiti™ Frozen Concoction Maker®. Or when he signed off on the emblazonment of “I’m the Woman to Blame” across a Tervis tumbler. Sometime around then, Jimmy Buffett entered a point of no return where the lifestyle of the erstwhile Jimmy Buffett became so distant and unrecognizable to the new Jimmy Buffett that he understood there could be a problem in the making. “The glue that holds this thing together is authenticity,” he told me on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where he eats breakfast when he’s in New York. “People can smell it if it isn’t real.”
IN 1979, Mr. Buffett showed up literally years late to a Rolling Stone interview, barefoot, in St. Barts, where he was living off a boat. On the first day we met, back in October, in New Orleans, the morning after opening night of the musical, he showed up on time at 9 a.m. Now he is surrounded by publicists and producers and a bodyguard. Now he has a boat but also another boat and some airplanes. Now he wears shoes just about whenever you’re supposed to.
Mr. Buffett and I both saw “Escape to Margaritaville” in New Orleans on Oct. 28, which is a day that fans have long since designated as Parrothead Day, though Mr. Buffett doesn’t know why. In the audience, fans wore feathers on their heads. When they sang along, it was in a unified hum, reminding Mr. Buffett of the recitation of prayers in church during his altar boy days.
After the show, there had been a big party where Mr. Buffett D.J.’ed alongside the movie producer Frank Marshall, who is his friend and one of the show’s creators. He had a tequila on the rocks and “a lot of water.” He’s 71, a married father of three adult children. He only occasionally drinks margaritas these days. “I don’t do sugar anymore,” he said. “No sugar and no carbs. Except on Sunday.” He doesn’t smoke pot anymore, either. Now he vapes oils, only sometimes after work.
“Escape to Margaritaville” will be Mr. Buffett’s first Broadway musical, but not his first musical. In 1997, he and his friend the novelist Herman Wouk, of all people, wrote one based on Mr. Wouk’s 1965 novel, “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” It’s not as unlikely a marriage as it sounds; the book was about a Manhattan press agent having a midlife crisis who leaves New York for the Caribbean. It played Miami; The Orlando Sentinel said that it suffered from “flat characters and weak songwriting.” After a brief run there, they took it to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, where it played until 2001. It never made it to Broadway. There were some investors who wanted it to, but they told Mr. Buffett that he would have to lose the dead weight — the dead weight being the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Wouk. Mr. Buffett politely declined.
Other Broadway offers came and went. In the 1990s, Jimmy Nederlander Sr. and Jr., the theater impresarios, took him to the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills to tempt him with a one-man show a little like the one Bruce Springsteen is currently starring in. But it didn’t seem economical. The theater needed to hire way too many crew members, and Mr. Buffett did the math and realized he’d lose money, compared with his take on the road. “Can we do two weeks instead?” he asked. His mother would have been thrilled to see him on Broadway. Alas, the answer was no.
When a potential jukebox musical was raised in 2014, he liked the idea. He talked to Mr. Marshall, and said they should partner up and do it right. “I don’t want another person’s version of me,” he told Mr. Marshall. “Find me some good writers who are basically Parrotheads who have been raised on this music because that’s important.” Mr. Buffett found that with Mr. Garcia and Mr. O’Malley, both of whom have written great and believable slackers. Tully is the kind of affable yutz that Mr. Garcia, in particular, writes best. But perhaps the inspiration for Mr. Garcia’s previous affable bums had always been the old Jimmy Buffett: the kind of ne’er do well who grapples with living a life of purpose while not wanting to work very hard.