5Qs with Keaton Eckhoff
Buddy Holly died more than 60 years ago in a famous plane crash that also killed Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. But it seems the early rock star just won’t stop touring.
And the ongoing Holly performances aren’t even in the guise of tribute bands. Unlike Elvis and the Beatles, say, Holly hasn’t attracted too many guys wanting to don his nerdy glasses and hiccup their way through his catalog. But just last year Holly himself appeared at the Granada in the first holographic show to hit town. And this week, the 30th anniversary tour of the Broadway musical Buddy, the Buddy Holly Story – which features 20 of Holly’s greatest hits including “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy,” and “Rave On,” and won Tony Awards in 1991 and 2000 and many others around the globe – arrives on the same stage for two performances.
We caught up with Keaton Eckhoff, the actor who portrays Holly, to have him rave on about the rock star’s enduring appeal.
Q. Playing a well-known real person in a jukebox musical can be a challenge. Do you try to completely impersonate him, or bring some of yourself to the role?
A. Oh, man, I did so much research, listened to his recordings so I could imitate his voice as well as possible. I’ve heard every single song multiple times just trying to get his style down, duplicate how he does his vowels, which is really different. I want it so that people can close their eyes and hear Buddy, the records they know and love… I’ve tried to put as many dimensions and layers to the character as I can within the story that we’re telling, which doesn’t capture all of it, obviously, because there was so much more to his life. But I try to bring my knowledge of who he was to my performances… But it’s not about me at all. I am a songwriter myself, so it’s easy to empathize with the hardships he went through from the beginning of his career. But mostly I just love getting to bring all my theatrical training, acting, musical abilities, motivations, and the tools in my toolbox.
Do you connect internally to Holly’s songs, his music, and life? Does it speak to you?
Buddy Holly was a real renegade of his time and it’s a pleasure to play him. He pushed the form forward, so much so that most pop music we have today just wouldn’t exist otherwise because he opened the door for everything that followed. But he also had so many different sounds, wonderful quiet songs, and real rockers. His versatility is something I have to respect. And he was a very driven dude, very cocky. There are moments of that in the show, the cocky 19-year-old boy who is a guy clawing his way to the top, hungry to make it. I can see that grit. I’m bringing that life to the role, bringing the truth of who he was and I am… And I’m also 100 percent driven. I’m always writing songs, figuring out my way into the music game, even though it’s completely changed. I’m trying to find my voice in the chaos. But I’m cocky and I want it too.
Why do you think Buddy has been such a success, the show itself, and the fact that all those songs are 50 years old?
Back in those days, when radio and record players were the only sources of music. We didn’t have cell phones and streaming. Stardom was a completely different thing. All of the people of that generation, who danced to and knew every word of his songs – they still come to the show over and over. That was the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll and they still want to see it. But we have a good younger demographic that comes to the show. It’s great to look out there and see that.
Buddy is one of the rare musicals where the actors are playing instruments live on stage. How is that for you?
That’s the best part of the show. Everything you hear is live, and I get to play my own guitar. I had to watch even more videos to learn the guitar parts on his songs, and how he played them. There’s a lot of tricky stuff; they’re so simple, but also powerful and very lyrical.
I’m told that 25 actors have played the role in this show before you. How do you differentiate yourself?
I don’t think about that. I think about how I can do my best. As long as I’m doing that, I can let all the other wonderful people fade into the past because it’s now in my hands. I take that seriously and I practice every day. But it’s just so fun and a wonderful role. Playing Buddy Holly is a complete joy.