TV Writers Greg Garcia and Mike O’Malley Tackle Broadway With a Jimmy Buffett Musical (Exclusive)

John Ganun

The two longtime TV writers and producers explain to ET how they got in the mindset to bring Buffett’s “Margaritaville” lifestyle to the stage.

The Guest Book creator Greg Garcia never imagined sitting at the bar drinking a margarita with Jimmy Buffett on National Margarita Day. But there he was, cocktail in hand, with America’s famous “drunken Caribbean rock n’ roll singer.” “My wife was like, ‘I want to have a margarita with Jimmy Buffett on National Margarita Day [too].’ I said, ‘Yeah, so does everyone in the world!’” Garcia jokes with ET.

Tequila with the Parrothead himself is just one of many once-in-a-lifetime moments the Emmy-winning director and producer has enjoyed while doing research for Jimmy Buffett’s first musical, Escape to Margaritaville, which begins previews on Feb. 16 at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway. Buffett, who wrote new music for the show, which also features some of his classic tunes, says a musical was on his bucket list. “I heard you’re supposed to get here,” he says.

Garcia spent the last five years co-writing the show’s book with Mike O’Malley, of Guts and Glee fame, who has appeared on several of Garcia’s hit TV shows, including My Name is Earl and Yes, Dear. Mike called me at my house and asked if I wanted to write a Broadway musical,” Garcia recalls of their initial conversation about it. “I asked him if he lost his mind. It's not something I normally get called and asked to do.”

O’Malley, who created and executive produces Survivor’s Remorse on Starz and has written episodes of Shameless on Showtime, had already worked on a pilot for a Margaritaville sitcom when he was approached by Buffett to pen a musical. Buffett wanted a creative team that understood his music, not somebody “doing their own version” of it. That’s when O’Malley approached Garcia to write it with him. “I knew how good a writer he was,” says O’Malley, “Not only [with] character and jokes, but with structure.”

Escape to Margaritaville, which is an original story, centers around a part-time bartender who thinks he’s got life figured out until a tourist steals his heart. “I just love how fun the characters are -- real people yearning to connect with other people,” O’Malley explains. “There is romance, joy and laughter to this, and that’s what I like about it.”

“The music obviously is fun. What we’ve seen so far is people walking out with giant smiles on their faces,” Garcia says, recounting watching audiences during the show’s out-of-town tryouts in Chicago, New Orleans, Houston and La Jolla, California.

It’s been a big transition going from writing for TV to live theater, but it’s been “exhilarating” for O’Malley, who started his career writing plays. “I don’t think I saw myself when I was younger writing a Broadway musical, but I don’t dance and sing so [well] so it’s my only choice I have at this point.” For Garcia, who has written hundreds of episodes for the small screen and taped most of them on sets in Los Angeles, it’s the immediate feedback from audiences he’s loving the most about this unique opportunity to write a book of a musical. “When you write an episode of TV, you film it, watch it on TV and wonder if anyone's enjoying this. Whereas with the theater, it’s just -- boom -- right there. I don’t need to read a review. People are laughing or they’re not.”

The pair were able to juggle their busy schedules by tag teaming. “That’s one of the good things about working with Greg is that were able to share the load a little bit,” O’Malley explains of when Survivor’s Remorse coincided briefly with Margaritaville. “It was a big balance. There were times where I couldn’t be there because I was in production and there were times I could,” he reveals of how they managed rehearsals for the show. Garcia says he spends every second he has writing updates to Margaritaville or on the second season of TBS’ The Guest Book, which begins filming in April.

But the most challenging part for Garcia has been being away from home, his wife and three children. “You miss hockey games [and] school plays that you're not going to get back. That to me has been the hardest part of doing this.” One of the reasons he got on board with Margaritaville was for his son, who is a theater major at Boston University. “Here I am five years later and we’re getting ready to open on Broadway, so I am certainly glad I said [yes]! It’s been quite a ride.”

It’s a ride that’s taken Garcia, along with the show’s lead, Paul Nolan, to the Florida Keys for the first time for a field trip with Buffett in his private plane to get a feel for paradise and playing in front of an audience. “That was quite an adventure,” Garcia says. “[I grew] up listening to Jimmy Buffett, and all of a sudden [I’m] sitting on a plane [looking] at the cockpit and he’s flying. It’s both thrilling and horrifying at the same time.”

When asked how many margaritas it took to get Margaritaville off the ground, Garcia coyly admits he prefers vodka drinks. “I keep trying to change it to ‘Wasting Away in Martiniville,’ but no one wants to get behind it.”