The Buddy Holly songbook — from “Peggy Sue,” “That Will Be the Day,” and “Well All Right” – is imprinted in the memory banks of baby boomers even if they don’t consider themselves fans.
Serious Holly aficionados include Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Elton John, who took inspiration from the young singer-songwriter and guitarist that conquered audiences in Europe before making serious inroads in America.
Even so, Holly’s comet remained aloft for a brief three years before it was extinguished in the crash of a small airplane in Clear Lake, Iowa. Perishing with him was 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, already a sensation for “La Bamba,” and J.P Richardson, aka “The Big Bopper,” and the 21-year-old pilot.
Musically active for 10 years, the apex of Holly’s career was short, but the inordinate amount of living that Holly packed into it inspired the musical, “Buddy–The Buddy Holly Story.” First performed in 1989 in London’s West End and on Broadway in New York in 1990, the show is opening at the Laguna Playhouse on Saturday, July 12, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 10.
The show’s director, Steve Steiner, was cast as the Big Bopper in the original Broadway production. He now also organizes national tours of the musical and earlier directed “Ring of Fire: The Songs of Johnny Cash,” a kindred theatrical tribute at the Playhouse.
Several cast members from that show are part of the “Buddy” cast, said Steiner. “Buddy had a tremendous influence on rock ’n’ roll, the way he played guitar, all downstrokes and done fast,” said Steiner, who has mastered the trombone, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet and flute along with bass guitar.
Steiner begins the story with Texas-born Holly sidestepping expectations to become a country singer. Seeing Elvis Presley in 1955 strengthened his musical convictions and he would open for Presley that year in his hometown, Lubbock.
The storyline includes Holly establishing The Crickets with band mates Niki Sullivan, Joe B. Maudlin and Jerry Allison and his whirlwind courtship of Maria Elena Santiago, to whom he proposed to on a first date.
Years ahead of the civil rights movement, the band played several black venues including the storied Apollo Theater in August of 1957.
Embodying Holly at the Playhouse, Todd Meredith is in his 15th “Buddy…” production but says that he finds ways to keep the role fresh. “It’s a bread and butter role for me but the music is so much fun and I get to play with locals in the cast and different people I have never worked with before, it never gets routine,” he said. “We are having such a blast here.”
Meredith, 30, started out as an actor but was signed for the Holly production in 2007 on strength of his acoustic guitar playing in high school.
“Six or seven years later I discovered that I was really more of a musician than an actor. I had been a BB King blues fan and gravitated toward old style blues a la Robert Johnson, who had influenced Buddy as well,” he said.
“This role helped me create this transition. I had seen acting as a way to make money and did not see musicianship as lucrative,” he said. In 2011, he started his own band, the Rav-Ons.
“The most challenging aspect of this role is to portray Buddy as likable rather than arrogant. When it came to music, he could be rather single minded and, everyone who comes to the show knows how it ends: the day the music dies,” he said.
Even so, Steiner, the cast, and the Playhouse’s executives are counting on the audience to defy the finale by dancing in the aisles and encouraging 1950s vintage looks, said Executive Director Karen Wood, who has her opening night outfit ready.
“The audience will be a big part in keeping things fresh and Steve (Steiner) encourages us to try new things like adding funny moments, a drum solo for a given song and changes in script. He does not want to stifle anyone’s rock and roll creativity,” said Meredith.
To embody Holly, Meredith wears his signature spectacles. “During the first two productions, I wore fakes but then I could no longer see the set lists and got my own prescription Buddy glasses.”