Thirty years after acting in the Broadway version of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” theater director Steve Steiner is helming his third production of the show, which is stopping for two nights at the Granada Theatre. On March 3 and 4, the short but influential life of the early rock and roll star will come to life as Mr. Steiner’s company of actors performs Buddy Holly’s music live completely onstage without external orchestration. With two acts that both end in recreations of famous concerts Mr. Holly performed in the late 1950s, the show dramatizes how his unique approach to music revolutionized an entirely new breed of popular music in just a few short years before his tragic death from a plane crash in 1959.
Mr. Steiner’s long history with “Buddy” goes back even before its 1990 Broadway run, as he performed in the show in several Canadian provinces and San Francisco before the show moved to Broadway. Though he auditioned to play the role of The Big Bopper, the singer who died in the fatal plane crash that killed Mr. Holly and “La Bamba” singer Ritchie Valens, Mr. Steiner ended up laying the role of the lead hayrider whose number opens the show before Mr. Holly gets introduced. As the hayrider, he played guitar and played trumpet in the show’s later sections because he was the only trumpeter in that production’s company of actors. When asked whether he as a director decided to stay true to the original production or make changes to it, Mr. Steiner said the instrumental lineups of each “Buddy” production differs based on which instruments the cast members have the ability to play. All of the show’s music is created onstage and doesn’t utilize an offstage orchestra, so the roles are delegated according to the capabilities of its actors.
“Every time you build a production of ‘Buddy,’ you build it around the talent of the people who are in the show,” he said.
When Mr. Steiner acted in “Buddy” thirty years ago, it was common for the audience to get up and dance at some point during the show. As he recalled, crowds danced with such energy that the venue’s balcony appeared to bounce up and down. In Mr. Steiner’s estimation, each production he has participated in has more often than not received this kind of response and never required any coaxing.
“We don’t even ask them. It’s just what people do… We welcome that because it means everyone is having fun,” he said.
At the time Mr. Holly died, Mr. Steiner was an eight-year-old fan of The Big Bopper and was heartbroken when he heard the news of the plane crash that killed them and Mr. Valens. At that age, he wasn’t aware of the ways Mr. Holly revolutionized popular music such as introducing orchestration to rock and roll and inventing a guitar style characterized mostly by downstrokes. According to the director, the latter is dramatized in the show when the higher ups at Mr. Holly’s record label try convincing him to be a traditional country singer, which would have required him to play the guitar with normal, up-down strumming. However, Mr. Holly sticks to his guns and persists with his downstroke-driven method.
The show’s two acts end with two of Mr. Holly’s most famous concerts, the first when he and his band The Crickets played the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and the second his last ever performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Following that concert, Mr. Holly, Mr. Valens, and The Big Bopper got on a plane for what would be their last ever flight. Via a radio DJ who acts as the show’s narrator, a broadcast relays the news of the plane crash and Mr. Holly’s death. However, rather than ending on that downbeat note, the show’s cast comes back onto the stage to play an “encore” in rock concert fashion and concludes with the Chuck Berry song “Johnny B Goode,” which the director called “the rock and roll national anthem.” By ending this way, the Mr. Steiner said the audience leaves with both a positive feeling and the truth of what happened to Mr. Holly.
“It ends on a high note, but it acknowledges that it’s the next thing that happened,” he stated.
Tickets for “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” can be purchased online at www.granadasb.org. Both the March 3 and 4 performances begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Granada Theatre located at 1214 State St.