The new musical "Buddy," based on the music of the late Buddy Holly, proves there will always be someone determined to make rock 'n' roll work on Broadway. In this case, at least it's someone with credentials: Paul McCartney, who both loves Holly's songs and owns them.
Unfortunately, that isn't enough. Broadway rock still doesn't fly in "Buddy," even with legitimate rocker Paul Hipp playing the lead.The problem is that the only way to handle the songs, for commercial appeal and credibility, is to re-create them precisely. But this raises the "Beatlemania" problem: Such renditions end up shallow, because they bring in nothing of their own.
That's why "Buddy" also has a story, to make us feel we're learning something about the person. Unfortunately, the "plot" starts with Early Cliche ("I want to play my music my way!") and disintegrates from there.
Besides misrepresenting central characters (producer Norman Petty was hardly the sweet gent seen here), the show ignores its era. Are we supposed to believe someone would say, in 1958, "You need some space to do your own thing"? That Buddy's band the Crickets would call themselves "honkies"?
A white-bread parody of the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" is so pointless it's annoying, and a "girl group" song has nothing whatever to do with 1958. But the Apollo Theatre scene is the point at which "Buddy" completely falls apart.
Yes, the Crickets did play the Apollo. But as dramatized here, we're supposed to believe no one at the Apollo actually knew the "other" Crickets - the great black group featuring Dean Barlow; no white performer had ever played the Apollo; and the Crickets were surprised to be there themselves - when in fact they were doing a black-theater tour. Worst of all, the black performers are portrayed here as stupid and aggressively hostile, which is incredibly insulting and offensive.
In the end, the only thing the "plot" adds to "Buddy" is length. At three hours, this show feels like it lasted longer than Buddy's life.
As a result, "Buddy" isn't what it could be, and that's sad, because Hipp reminds us what good music Holly made. It also has moments of good humor, like when The Big Bopper sings "Running Bear," which he wrote for Johnny Preston. Of course, Preston's record didn't come out until eight months after the Big Bopper died.
"Buddy" also will resurrect for some fans the debate over where the star's own career might have gone. Clearly he wanted his music to change. In three years it had already evolved from gem-perfect, dirt-simple rockabilly to ballads with strings, which has led some to suggest he might have become a full-scale pop composer and maybe ended up on Broadway all by himself.
Some argue he could have been a Bob Dylan, able to sustain a career on his own musical terms. The book "Eddie and the Cruisers" fantasizes Holly among a vanguard of artists forging a powerful new synthesis of black and white music.
Cold, hard rock-'n'-roll realism, however, suggests the odds were long - especially when Holly seemed to feel he'd already taken his early lean masterworks as far as he could. Just look at his peer Chuck Berry - a transcendent artist who plays half his shows as if they were revenge against people who won't let him leave the '50s.
Whence Buddy Holly? Good question. "Buddy" doesn't help with the answer.