Role Playing: Zachary Stevenson elevated his Buddy Holly from hiccups to the rockin’ truth
Interview: Actor who plays Buddy Holly with American Blues Theatre recalls a tough learning curve to master Holly’s infectious vocal style, stage presence.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Zachary Stevenson slips into the persona of Buddy Holly like the early rocker’s doppelgänger in American Blues Theatre’s extended run of the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” by Alan Janes. Stevenson says he feels that identity – now. But back when he first landed the part, more than a decade and some 12 productions ago in Toronto, it was a different story.
“I thought I might be in over my head,” Stevenson says. “The songs sound simple, but once I realized the amount of work that would be required vocally, I knew it was going to be tough. It took a lot of woodshedding, vocally and on the guitar.” Obviously, the effort has paid dividends several times over. But back at the start, the actor says, “I never imagined this would be a recurring role.”
Buddy Holly – clean cut, tall, lanky, bespectacled and a bit awkward – burst out of Lubbock, Tex., and onto the national scene in 1957. His meteoric career lasted only about 18 months before he died in a plane crash in Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959, at age 22 while on tour. In that short time, he produced a prodigious stream of hits. And his distinctive singing style, marked by a sort of hiccup delivery, together with impulsive guitar riffs that roughly mirrored that mannerism, would influence virtually every rock artist after him, from the Beatles and Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones.
Stevenson, whose Holly-esque vocal gestures and even physical inflections are honed to a natural ease, showed up at the first audition as a creature from an entirely different world.
“I was like any other actor answering a casting call,” he says. “I’d been doing ‘Hair’ in Toronto. I had huge sideburns and long hair. I knew a little bit about Buddy Holly, and I played ‘Everyday’ and ‘It’s So Easy.’ I guess they saw through the sideburns.
“But I’ve always loved rock and roll. Otherwise, I don’t think I could ever have made this work. I’ve got to feel that fire internally every time I’m on stage – to let the music excite me the way it excited Buddy. He was a very talented, passionate, driven guy.”
Stevenson admits that getting into Buddy Holly’s skin – and soul – involved a progression from what he calls “cookie-cutter” copying to breaking down Holly’s style and bit by bit internalizing the elements.
“I notated lyrics and tried to find my own little accents,” he says. “I studied where the hiccups were, how he chopped up certain words and broke them down, like at the beginning of ‘Rave On’ – that ‘A-weh-a-heh-a-hell, the little things you say and do…’ And Buddy plays guitar like he sings. His voice ranges from high nasal to mimicking Elvis with a deep sound. There’s all kinds of variety in the way he attacks notes and rhythms.
“It was all very technical at first. Before it felt natural to me, it felt very unnatural – kind of like learning a new instrument. But over time, I feel like I’ve come to know the freedom he felt, to have fun with it. The experience is different from one performance to the next. It doesn’t look, sound or feel the same. That wouldn’t work.”
What was natural from the start and critically helpful, Stevenson says, was the similarity between his vocal range and Holly’s.
“It was a little like paint-by-numbers at the start while I got a sense of how it should feel in my own muscles,” he says. “It’s incredible how at a certain point muscle memory kicks in. I don’t think about it anymore. My voice is now at a place where Buddy’s songs just feel right to sing. It’s funny, and sad in a way: I’ve had more opportunity to sing these songs than he did.”
Along with the vocal challenge came the task of capturing the physical Buddy Holly in performance. That’s not a small factor. The few clips available reveal that when Holly was on stage, the music seemed to ripple down the length of his body.
“Since there’s so little footage out there, you have to extrapolate Buddy’s sense of physicality and expand on it quite a bit,” Stevenson says. “You read that Buddy Holly and the Crickets (his back-up players on bass and drums) were a lot more unhinged on stage than you might infer from the rather contained Buddy in the TV clips.
“You see his right leg keeping time. He’s a red-blooded young man with some sexual energy, but he’s not the sexual force that Elvis was. Buddy was sort of nerdy, but he embraced who he was – not traditionally good looking, a kind of awkward guy who had to wear glasses. Sort of like Roy Orbison.”
In no other venue where Stevenson has assumed the form of Buddy Holly has his work come under such close-up inspection as it does every night in the intimacy of the American Blues production at Stage 773.
“When I first saw the space,” the actor recalls, “I thought, Oh, my God, how are you going to fit ‘Buddy’ in here? But it’s been really cool. The immediacy of the audience has kept me from getting lost in old habits, to stay laser focused. There’s no room to get distracted. And if someone in the audience shouts something out, I’m likely to respond. That’s real. I love that.”
Confronting such intimate reality was the core message Stevenson got from director Lili-Anne Brown, he says.
“She reminded me to go for the truth, and she got me to think about Buddy a bit differently. He’s on the brink of something huge. Nobody else knows it yet. He’s constantly being told he’s wrong, but in his heart he knows he’s right. Buddy’s like the Mark Zuckerberg of rock and roll. He knows he has an element of genius.”
Review of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story”: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle
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