Backstage With 'Buddy'

Rock and roll behind the scenes of a London musical - meet the star, learn how the sound system works, watch as the scenery changes

TO be honest, I like to snoop. It's probably one of the reasons why I became a journalist.So, after seeing the phenomenal London stage hit "Buddy" the fourth time in two years - a musical based on the life of 1950s American rock-and-roll star Buddy Holly, who, at age 22, was killed in an airplane crash - I decided to indulge myself. Each time I've seen the show, I have been completely caught up in the saga of his life and the riveting renderings of the old rock tunes, most of which he wrote himself and sang with his band, The Crickets: "That'll Be the Day,Maybe Baby,Peggy Sue," and others. Buddy Holly was one of the early pioneers of rock, and his legacy can easily be detected right up to the present. Sure, I had occasionally caught snatches of some of his biggest hits on the radio as I was growing up and, frankly, wasn't that impressed. But hearing them performed live, and in the context of his life story, is a completely different experience. I now understand much better the excitement that ignited teenagers of yesteryear when rock-and-roll first burst on the music scene. I'm not alone. London theatergoers - and a lot of people who don't normally go to the theater - keep coming back to see the show again and again. And I am amazed at how the audience is affected. All and sundry, from young kids to white-haired folk, invariably rise to their feet in the second half of the evening, and start rockin' out to the infectious rhythms. How is this excitement generated night after night? What's going on backstage? I decided to find out. A few phone calls later, there I was outside the stage door at the Victoria Palace Theatre where "Buddy" is playing. I was told to be there two hours before showtime, which is when most of the company arrives. That was my first surprise. Why so early? Once inside the door, I was confronted by a man sitting in a small reception booth. After I identified myself, the man made a quick phone call and soon 26-year-old American actor Chip Esten, who has been imported to fill the role of Buddy, was bounding down the stairs to greet me. Onstage he wears prominent black-rimmed glasses that were the rocker's trademark: Holly, we learn in the show, despite strong advice to the contrary, insisted on wearing his glasses when performing. Without the specs, Esten's g ood looks are unmasked and he is almost unrecognizable. He shakes my hand warmly, then leads me down a narrow passageway to his dressing room. You might expect a touch of self-importance from someone who every night has hoards of girls screaming outside the stage door clamoring for his autograph, but I was pleased to find not a trace. Chip tells me that he graduated from the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, with a degree in economics before setting off to Los Angeles to become an actor. He was also a member of a successful rock band during his university years. His respect for Holly he was such a gentleman," Chip says - and his music is apparent. So is his love for being in the show. Indeed, before talking with him, I had presumed that after doing six performances a week for many months now, it would be understandably hard fo r him to keep up the enthusiasm. How wrong I was. When the audience spontaneously get to their feet and start dancing, the feeling is "indescribable," Chip says. "To me, to make people that happy is the most rewarding thing that could ever happen." Moreover, such joy, he continues, has an energy all its own, which every cast member feels when it's coming at them; and, as long as that happens, no matter how many times he does the show, the enthusiasm doesn't wane. But why does he have to arrive so early? Surely after so many performances, he doesn't need a lot of preparation. Wrong again. He does. For starters, acting onstage for nearly the entire 2 1/2 hours, plus singing the songs at full tilt while vigorously playing an electric guitar, takes an amazing amount of energy, requiring Chip to shower both before and after the show. Chip uses his couple of hours prior to showtime to switch from outside-world mode to become completely relaxed. He listens to old blues or rock tapes - later, just before going onstage, it's a Buddy Holly compilation to mentally transport himself into that era. While putting on his makeup, he also does about 10 minutes of voice exercises to loosen up his neck and throat. Then comes some guitar practice. On top of this, he always finds a few moments to pray. "It's the most relaxing thing you could ever do, actually, to my way of thinking," Chip says. I leave him to shower and head out to look around. As I walk down the corridor a disembodied voice tells the cast and crew how many minutes are left before the curtain goes up. Messages purr through the speakers at regular intervals, creating a mood akin to an airport gearing for a takeoff. A lady carrying a large basket of clean laundry passes by on her delivery round: Between Chip and the other cast members, there are some 92 shirts worn onstage - not to mention all the T-shirts and socks - that are washed by the company's team of laundresses following every performance. As curtain time fast approaches, I return to Chip's room. He's doing his electric guitar practice at full volume and singing in a stronger Southern drawl than was evident before his transformation into a teenage Buddy, fresh from Texas, was taking place. The music engulfs the room. To have my own private performance of a rousing "That'll Be the Day" that slips into "Blue Days, Black Nights" is an unexpected and thrilling treat. A five-minute call for all actors to be in the wings comes over the intercom. Chip gives me a cheery "see you out there." The Texan intonations are now perfectly in place. As I leave for my behind-the-curtain post and he for the stage, he smiles, pointing out a sign to me, the last thing he sees every time he goes out the door: "Don't Forget Your Glasses!" it reads, with a comic picture of a pair of Buddy's specs drawn on it. I follow Chip as he dashes down the narrow, dimly lit corridor to wait in the wings for his first cue. The show begins. I'm disappointed. I'm sitting just to the side of the stage next to the sound man who is twiddling a lot of knobs - there are, amazingly, over 800 of them - on a colorful panel of blinking and bobbing lights, and I'm hardly aware that the action has started. I had never quite grasped just how pitch black and quiet it would be behind the curtain, particularly with the actors giving it their all only a few yards away. Through the side of the curtain I can see them, as well as part of the front row of the a udience smiling with rapt attention. So near - yet it seems so far away. Sound operator Stuart Blandamer explains to me in a whisper why: Onstage there is a complicated network of microphones - 47 different channels, which are constantly being watched and adjusted, each feeding into 16 sound monitors - plus, when Buddy sings, his voice is instantly filtered through a "slap-back echo." This was a recording technique popular in the '50s and used by Holly on his records. By fractionally delaying the sound, then feeding it through the system again, it creates a particularly reson ant quality to the singing. Yet backstage, the music is about as exciting as listening to someone strum an unplugged electric guitar. After each scene, any guitars that have been used onstage are handed to Gordon Waters who checks them. To constantly clean and retune the five guitars and two double basses that are used in the show is his sole task. Suddenly, there is a mini-crisis. Sound operator Stuart turns to Gordon and whispers, "Hey, one of Chip's strings is out of tune. Did you do that?" How he can tell from the faint level of sound we're getting backstage, I honestly don't know. As quickly as the mini-crisis erupts, it's over. In an ad lib, Chip retunes the wayward string onstage himself. Between scenes, like dark, mysterious creatures lurking silently in the shadows, the many stagehands - with tiny flashlights held between their teeth to see where they're going - slip wordlessly into action and unhook slabs of wooden scenery from what look like curtain rods, then attach more scenery for the next bit of action. The larger blocks of set design are on tracks that rapidly slide on and off the stage from each side by electrically controlled "trucks." Should these break down, they can be manua lly operated by large cranks. The "lighting design" is another complicated story. There are even more lights situated around the stage than microphones and speakers. In a small box, near a far balcony on one side of the theater, sits a light operator. She gets her cues, via headphones, from a stage manager sitting in another similar small box on the opposite side, who is continually keeping her eyes focused on the stage. When a key word is spoken or sung to signal an upcoming light change, the stage manager instantly tells the light operator, through their headphone linkup. The latter then pushes the appropriate buttons. Without all the lights to create depth and mood, it's amazing how two-dimensional and downright plain the set looks. I watch the actors in the wings as they rush off during a scene change. Several "dressers" are stripping shirts from each and helping them on with fresh ones. It's all done with split-second precision. With the next-to-last scene approaching - a recreation of Buddy's last concert before the fatal plane crash - I watch Chip, awaiting his cue. He goes through an active routine of kneebends, running in place, and half-splits while swiveling his torso with guitar in hand. Then, just as the cue comes, he does one little energetic hop and bounces onstage to deliver his first line with 10 times the gusto of normal conversation. The final scene brings Buddy and The Crickets back as a way of saying that, even though the man has died, his music and joyous spirit live on. As Chip puts it, "We're in the dream world of drama: We can give you Buddy Holly back onstage, doing the encore that we never got." By the time this moment occurs, the crowd is on its feet. The actors break into "Rave On," with Chip dramatically sliding across the entire stage on his knees. When the curtain comes down and they are in the wings again, an assistant stage manager wearing headphones tells the cast to "stand by." Their low-key murmurings about tonight's performance are instantly hushed. The stage manager in the balcony booth is assessing the mood of the crowd. They want more, she decides: Do an encore, she tells the cast. They are immediately sober-faced and quiet, lining up. One step past the dark wings into the bright lights and each springs into larger-than-life enthusiasm. I decide to sit in an empty seat in the audience for the encore. Just when I thought the magic of the show for me was gone forever - seeing what goes on backstage is a bit of a killjoy, I must confess - it returns in an instant. Once in front of the stage again, the driving rhythms, the multihued lights beaming onto and bouncing off of the action, the actors putting gale-force energy into their smiles, gestures, and voices, transport me, along with the frenzied audience, to the 1950s. After the standing ovation, I go to Chip's room. He's drained, dripping with perspiration, but "up," he says, because the audience tonight was "really into it." As we talk, our words are periodically drowned by the girls outside screaming in unison for him. I ask what he's thinking to himself when he hears them. "It's really exciting for me," he remarks, "because you couldn't have a better advertisement for a show than to have a bunch of people coming out screaming like that." Chip showers and finally emerges in his jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap, ready to face his fans. He patiently autographs every girl's program. Finally, as the last group of satisfied fans walk down the street together singing "That'll Be the Day" with uninhibited abandon, I watch Chip. He smiles, and we exchange a few words of good-bye, before he heads off alone to a nearby subway. I cannot help but reflect, looking up at the word "Buddy" above us emblazoned in neon letters many feet high, that Chip's fellow subway travelers will have no idea of the small miracle he has helped to create this evening. Thanks to him, over a thousand people had left the Victoria Palace Theatre feeling a lot lighter and happier than they did when they went in. They'd had an experience of pure joy to be remembered for a long time to come. But, for Chip Esten, it's all in a night's work.

'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can findstories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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