NEW YORK -- The question is, at what point will the new musical "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," a British import about an American icon, have audiences jitterbugging in the carpeted aisles of the elegant Shubert Theatre? Will they get out of their seats for "Not Fade Away," set during Holly and the Crickets' historic appearance at Harlem's Apollo? Or will they wait for the second act, when the band tears into "Rave On" during a re-enactment of Holly's final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa?
Because the creators of the show, which opens tonight, and star Paul Hipp, who plays the most famous eyeglasses-wearer in rock-and-roll (take that, Elton John), are determined that the crowd will, sooner or later, get up and shake it.
People do in London, where "Buddy" is in its second year in the West End. It was "a madhouse," says Hipp, a 25-year-old Philadelphian, of the collapse of decorum at the start of the London run. "All these propah theatah-goers saying, 'Oh my gawd, I'm dahncing. In a theatah.' I like that," he adds with evident satisfaction. "Rock-and-roll should be like a jug of corn wine at a champagne party."
There's not much precedent for a real rock musical on Broadway, "Hair" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" failing to qualify by purists' standards. Producer Laurie Mansfield, a fan so ticked off by the inaccuracies in the 1978 Hollywood version of Holly's life that he hatched this theatrical tribute, is a little nervous about a backlash. He can practically hear Broadway types muttering about a bunch of Brits trying to tell us about our own musical heroes.
"If that's your attitude, go home and check your record collection," Hipp scoffs back. He's spending an hour before rehearsals in his new uptown digs with Dylan (the musician) on the stereo and Dylan (the white terrier) sniffing around the floor. "This music was so ignored for so many years in this country and revered in England as it should be. ... I'm an actor who's always had a problem with British imports, and now I'm the star of one. It infuriated me before. But where better to have a musical about Buddy Holly come from?"
True enough, in the long tradition of Americans learning their musical heritage via British recycling, Holly is probably better known and even more beloved Over There. He and the Crickets had hit records there for years after his death in that much-memorialized 1959 plane crash that also killed Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Paul McCartney, who owns the publishing rights to most of Holly's songs, hosts a birthday party and concert for him in London each September. At times the entire British Invasion -- from the Rolling Stones' early cover of "Not Fade Away" and the Beatles' "Words of Love" to the group that dubbed itself the Hollies -- seemed to have come of age listening to the gangly kid from Lubbock, Tex.
"English people like to look back with nostalgia," is Mansfield's explanation. "Here, there are very short memories. You rarely see Gene Pitney working in the U.S. In England, he's about to start a 36-date tour that's sold out before he gets there. Neil Sedaka works a lot. Bobby Vee -- I doubt you could get him arrested here."
As for the beloved part, Holly still engenders affection on both sides of the Atlantic that few other early rock pioneers can match, though without the bordering-on-sicko idolatry that produces portraits on velvet.
He was among the first white musician-songwriters to amalgamate country music and Western swing with black gospel influences and blues rhythms, to set them into a guitar-and-drums framework that still haunts a thousand garages, and to bring it all onto "The Ed Sullivan Show." The others in that vanguard seemed a bit dangerous, by virtue of their sneering sexuality (Elvis) or their flamboyant androgyny (Little Richard) or a certain air of menace (Chuck Berry). Holly, who was famously nice, whose music had a transcendent exuberance and who died at 22 before any subsequent development could sully that image, was "the approachable rock star," Mansfield theorizes.
"Elvis, maybe because he was so gorgeous and because he was extremely eccentric -- locked away -- he sort of became a deity instead of a human being," Hipp says. (The folks connected with the show clearly love talking about this stuff; it's like trading baseball cards.) "Buddy was a guy you could have known. ... Elvis was more a Marilyn Monroe or a James Dean type even when he was alive; therein lies the difference."
Although, Hipp goes on to muse, "Buddy was dangerous at that time, as bizarre as it sounds. It was still rock-and-roll. To me, 'Rave On' has as much edge as anything Chuck Berry wrote. ... It was the first record of commitment, of rock-and-roll as salvation."
The irony here is that Hipp was born in 1965 when Holly was dead and half-forgotten; he saw "Jailhouse Rock" on television as a boy when Elvis was already a bloated Vegas crooner. Unlike Laurie Mansfield, who retains powerful memories of reading headlines about Holly's death, Hipp has no reason to know much about any of this stuff or to be able to rattle off anecdotes about Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. He's further evidence, if any were needed, that rock can vault such barriers as mere age.
The music "must have hit me like it hit kids back then," says Hipp; possibly as a result, he has padded out for an interview, cigarette in hand, in bare feet, leather pants and the requisite amount of cheek stubble. As a kid, using a pint-sized coat rack for a mike, "I became Elvis in my bedroom." One Christmas, allowed to ask Santa for one record album, he chose "Gene Vincent's Greatest Hits." And he borrowed Buddy Holly's records from his local library in suburban Bucks County, Pa.
Such rockabilly tastes made him "a bit of an oddball at school," where a fondness for Led Zeppelin and David Bowie was more the norm. But he got the inevitable guitar at 13 ("anyone who tells you they got a guitar for any other reason than to get laid is lying") and formed the inevitable band (called the Party Monsters) at 16. Then, with high school behind him, Hipp came to New York.
He studied acting, did some extremely off-Broadway theater and a couple of widely unseen movies. He played the clubs with a band called Paul Hipp and the Heroes; it still exists and sounds, he says, "like Bob Dylan meets Creedence and has a train wreck with Iggy Pop." He also met Carole King, for whom he has written several songs and with whom he was performing in London last year (see? they do like looking back with nostalgia) when he was asked to audition for "Buddy."
The search for someone to play Holly had been underway for more than two months in England, New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, says the play's director, Rob Bettinson. "We were looking for musicians who could act a bit and actors who could musisch a bit." Along with the chunks of concertizing, the show attempts to dramatize key events in Holly's brief life: his resistance to doubters who wanted to position him as a country act; the shock among the Apollo's performers and audience when the Crickets turned out to be white; the transformation of a tune called "Cindy Lou" into one named for the drummer's girlfriend, Peggy Sue; Holly's romance with a secretary named Maria Elena.
"It's difficult to cast: He has to look like him and be a musician and act something as long as 'Hamlet,' " Bettinson says. Hipp may not be ready for Shakespeare, but he already knew how to play a Stratocaster behind his head, and he could speak Texan (a director he worked with grew up near Lubbock) without hiring a dialect coach. The role, in which he was nominated for Britain's prestigious Olivier Award, is "a payback for having been schizophrenic for the last 10 years," says Hipp of his dual allegiance to music and to acting. As a bonus, given enough hair gunk and suitable optical gear, he does approximate Holly's Ur-nerd look. Onstage, he's a goofily grinning grasshopper with glasses.
Life and art have blurred several times during these past months. Hipp and the stage Crickets played with the real surviving Crickets, Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin, at the London Palladium and at the Hard Rock Cafe here when McCartney's annual bash moved west to help promote the show. Hipp's plastic-covered scrapbook includes a note from Maria Elena Santiago, Holly's widow, who came to see the show and said that Hipp had brought Holly back to her. Hipp balked, however, at posing for photographs in Holly's clothing. Interesting as it was to note that the jacket was worn on the side where Holly slung his guitar, "I draw the line at putting on a dead man's suit."
The show, which cost $4 million to bring to the same Broadway theater where "A Chorus Line" closed last spring after almost 15 years, is nearing an encouraging, but not monumental, $2 million in advance ticket sales. Whether or not the critics approve, producer Mansfield thinks "Buddy" can draw enough people who aren't normally theatergoers to ensure a long run. In this city where doo-wop lives and the top-rated radio station plays golden oldies, that may prove a winning strategy.
But even if it isn't, and even if Paul Hipp and the Heroes don't get the record deal they're expecting, there's still this decided victory: Unlike the much-scorned "Beatlemania," in which four look-alikes lip-synced their way through a psychedelic revue, in this show "every note played or sung is performed by the 'Buddy' company," as the program takes pains to point out.
This memorandum wasn't included in the London program but was added en route to New York when it became clear that audiences doubted that the people on the stage were actually making the music. They are, though. "Because we're superhuman," Hipp explains.
Also fanatically devoted, no doubt.
"Fanatically devoted," Hipp agrees. "And massively talented."