CHRISTOPHER Weeks will be in York all week, playing the lead role as Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story returns to its regular nesting place of the Grand Opera House from Tuesday for the first time since 2017.
After the 30th anniversary travels were stalled by Covid, writer-producer Alan Janes’s musical is back on the road at last, adding to the record-breaking 4,668 performances over 580 weeks on tour in Britain and Ireland (alongside 5,822 performances over 728 weeks in London’s West End since 1989).
Buddy tells the “day the music died” story of how bespectacled Buddy Holly, from Lubbock, Texas, rose from southern rockabilly beginnings to international stardom in only 18 months before his untimely death in a snow-shrouded plane crash at the age of only 22 after playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.
Christopher, a 33-year-old southerner with northern connections, has been a Buddy fan since childhood days. “The show has been around for more than 30 years, and I first saw it in High Wycombe when I was seven or eight,” he recalls.
“I grew up with the show soundtrack, before I knew Buddy Holly’s own versions, and it’s always been on the list of shows I wanted to do, but I never thought I’d get to play Buddy as it’s top of the tree, a pipe dream, the biggest show of its kind around.”
Nevertheless, Christopher knew members of the previous Buddy cast of actor-musicians, having worked with Josh Haberfield, his “go-to drummer”, who played The Crickets’ Jerry Allison in the show, and Joe Butcher, Buddy’s double bassist Joe B Maudlin.
That affiliation provided his inroad. “I was in a group called The Runaround Kids, a four-piece with a flexible line-up [including Haberfield and Butcher, sharing drumming duties], and we played Buddy Holly and other rock’n’roll songs.
“I played piano and fronted the band on cruise ships and we did it all over the world, playing with headline acts like Chesney Hawkes and Gareth Gates. We once shared a cab back with Chesney!”
Haberfield and Butcher mentioned Weeks’s enthusiasm to play Buddy to director Matt Salisbury. “I then went through an audition process that was very vigorous,” says Christopher.
“That was in 2019, when they were casting for the 30th anniversary tour in 2019/2020. I got the part, and everything was rolling along nicely, six months or so into the tour, when we had the dreaded ‘We’ll keep you posted’ meeting and the pandemic lockdown soon followed.
“They were great with us, very upfront, and gave us some financial support, but it’s such a big show that the tour has only been back up and running for three weeks.
“You couldn’t have done it for the previous two years, as it just wasn’t possible, and then the venues had to play catch-up with all the shows that had been booked in.”
Has resuming the tour after such a long hiatus been akin to climbing back on to a bicycle? “Well, I did as much work on it as I could at home. The songs never leave you, and because we’ve played them with all those different groups, The Crickets came together a few days before rehearsals resumed to refresh ourselves,” says Christopher.
“Once you get back in the rehearsal room, you start finding yourself instinctively back in the same positions on stage. It felt like a shadow was there from what I’d done before.”
Driven by the truncated arc of Holly’s story – the candle snuffed out so soon – as much as by such songs as That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy, Everyday, Rave On, The Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace and Ritchie Valens’s La Bamba, Buddy adds up to much more than the raft of jukebox musicals it inspired.
“In terms of drama, it’s a tragedy,” says Christopher. “Jukebox musicals have their place, but this is different. It’s a play with songs and it’s not rose-tinted, showing a lovely guy who nevertheless wanted to get things done his way and didn’t have time for any nonsense.
“There’s so much drama, and it’s a true telling of how the songs came about, rather than just singing because that’s what the emotion demands. They’re playing music because they’re musicians.
“It’s the rawness and simplicity of those songs that still appeal to people. Music has gone through so many turns and changes, like my father growing up listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. He’d probably look back at rock’n’roll as simplistic, whereas I see it as simple but vibrant and thrilling.”
Christopher admires Holly for his “creativity, passion and drive, and unimaginable talent”. “He was in the business for only 18 months, and I do wonder if he somehow knew what was coming. He was always on the clock, always in the studio, always up at night writing, and his wife [Maria Elena] had that dream of what might happen,” he says.
Naming Raining In My Heart, Early In The Morning and True Love Ways – the song that accompanied his walk down the aisle on his wedding day – as his Holly favourites, Christopher will be on tour until October.
Next week he will tread the Grand Opera House boards for the first time since playing The Big Three bassist Johnny Gustafson in Cilla, The Musical in January 2018, as he heads north once more.
Should you be wondering about his northern connections: “My mother’s side of the family is from Ilkley. Do you know my uncle?” he enquires. Who? “Mike Laycock!”
Mike Laycock, soon-to-retire chief reporter of The Press, no less.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, runs at Grand Opera House, York, March 21 to 25, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: atgtickets.com/york
Copyright of The Press, York