Trailblazing jukebox musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Writer and producer Alan Janes tells Douglas McPherson how the phenomenon came into being and how he’s still struggling to put his finger on its secret
For those wanting to know how to make a show run for 30 years, don’t ask the team behind Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story. “I didn’t believe it would run for 30 days,” chuckles writer-producer Alan Janes. “I was absolutely gobsmacked when it ran for 30 weeks. After 10 years and 20 years, I thought: ‘I can’t see this going on for much longer.’ Now here we are celebrating 30 years with a 40-week number one tour.”
He continues: “It’s probably going to outlive me. But whatever the magic ingredient is, I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
Hitting the boards a decade before Mamma Mia!, Buddy is the daddy of jukebox musicals – and was a box office phenomenon from curtain up. After making its bow at Theatre Royal, Plymouth, the show transferred to London’s Victoria Palace Theatre and stayed in the West End for more than 12 years.
It was the first show to tour the UK while still in the West End and subsequently set a record for 243 weeks – or more than four years – of continuous touring.
Since then, Buddy has played on Broadway and toured territories including Canada, Australia, Europe, South Africa and Japan.
Writing Buddy was “a labour of love” for Janes, who was eight years old when Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, at the height of his fame, 60 years ago this year. “Buddy Holly was played in our house, as was a lot of early rock’n’roll, so I grew up with it,” says the writer, who once worked as a music promoter for The Who’s record company, Track Records.
Having originally trained as a theatre director at East 15, Janes’ writing career took off when a play of his was picked up by the producers of TV show Z Cars: “They said, ‘This would make a great Z Cars episode, come in and we’ll show you how to redo it for TV.’”
Janes went on to write for Angels, Emmerdale and Grange Hill, and created the Channel Four drama series Prospects. “All that time I was trying to get back to the theatre, which I eventually did with Buddy,” he says.
The idea for Buddy came out of a late-night conversation between Janes, theatrical agent Laurie Mansfield and TV producer Greg Smith. “Laurie wanted to do a show about Buddy Holly and we sat and talked about it, as all three of us were fans,” Janes says. “We agreed that I would go off and write something and we’d see if it would work.”
With Paul Elliott on board as producer, Buddy went into rehearsals in the summer of 1989. According to then company manager and now the show’s director Matt Salisbury, it was a voyage into the unknown for all concerned.
“There was no precedent for a show with a band on stage and the actors playing the instruments. Every day at rehearsals there was a new problem to sort out: ‘We need a monitor because I can’t hear myself play’; ‘We need a truck to wheel the drum kit on and off stage.’ We made it up as we went along.”
Finding a musically able cast was also a challenge, Salisbury reveals. “There are so many actor-musician courses now, because of the success of Buddy and other shows of that ilk. The talent pool is much bigger. Thirty years ago it was pretty much the four big drama schools where you were taught acting and singing, not this actor/singer/dancer/musician thing.” Janes adds: “For the first Buddy, we cast New York rock’n’roller Paul Hipp who came over and learned the acting bit on the hoof.”
The atmosphere on opening night in Plymouth was, Salisbury says, “absolutely electric – it was scary.” He continues: “Everyone was very nervous. But at the end of the night the audience were ecstatic. I’d never seen
anything like it.”
With a score including such hits as Oh, Boy!, Rave On and That’ll Be The Day, the high-octane musical performances brought in an audience of rock’n’roll fans that didn’t normally go to the theatre. “There were incredible scenes when we first came to London,” says Janes. “People would leave at the interval, not knowing there was an interval. We had somebody standing outside the Victoria Palace telling them: ‘No, there’s more.’ ”
The scenes inside the theatre were just as amazing. “At the Victoria Palace it was unheard of that people would get up and dance,” Janes marvels. “But two days into our production, the whole theatre was up and they’ve stayed up ever since. Unlike some shows, we never ask the audience to get up, but I’ve rarely seen a performance when they don’t spontaneously get up for the last 15 minutes.”
Within days, the owners of the Victoria Palace were panicking about the way the circle bounced up and down under the weight of bopping fans. “Structural engineers were called in, but they said it was okay, because it had an element of movement built in,” Janes says.
He took over as producer in 2004 and the show has been going strong ever since. “Every time we do a tour, we pretty much have a new cast, so you have that fresh energy,” says Salisbury. “You have to allow the actors to re-imagine the roles and that goes for the creative crew, too. We don’t ever say: ‘This is how we used to do it.’
“It’s: ‘This is how we’re going to do it, this is a new version.’ Then it’s a matter of keeping everyone buoyant and remembering it’s supposed to be fun, because rock’n’roll is fun, and everyone has a ball. Everyone who comes along to this new tour will agree there’s life in this old dog yet.”
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