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Stage Preview: Role convinces actor of Buddy Holly's musical legacy

Monday, July 24, 2000

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

The inspiration Buddy Holly provided the Beatles alone would be enough to guarantee the bespectacled singer a place in the rock 'n' roll history books.

    'Buddy...The Buddy Holly Story'

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $11 to $42, 412-456-6666


But Holly was more than a catalyst, leaving behind at the time of his death in 1959 a collection of songs that more than holds its own against the greatest artists of his generation, from the big hit singles ("That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Oh Boy!," "Rave On," etc.) to the album cuts (the sweet celesta-driven "Everyday" to "Words of Love," a song immortalized in 1964 with a beautiful cover on "Beatles for Sale").

Whether raving on in rockabilly mode or turning tender on an orchestrated ballad, Holly did it all.

And then he died at 22, effectively preserving a legacy made all the more astonishing by the fact that it was all recorded in a four-year flurry of activity.

Van Zeiler didn't know a thing about it when he tried out for the lead in "Buddy ... The Buddy Holly Story."

Sure, he knew the bigger hits. But mostly, "I just knew that he wore glasses, really," Zeiler says.

After three years of wearing the glasses himself -- on a U.K. tour, in London and now in the States on a tour that makes its way to town tomorrow via Pittsburgh CLO -- Zeiler has a new respect for Holly, both in terms of the impact he's had on the musical culture and the perfectionist work ethic fueling his art.

Knowing what he knows of Holly now, Zeiler's certain his music would have kept evolving, pushing rock 'n' roll itself to new frontiers.

"I think he would definitely have continued to push through barriers and try new things," he says. "That's what he was doing when he died, working with orchestrations and working with jazz guys and all sorts of things that later on became the norm but at the time were laughed at. It's the same thing that happened throughout his career. He'd always try different things, and people would say, 'That's absurd, you can't do that.' And then he would do that, and later on he would be proved right. And I think that would have continued through his life, whether he was involved in production or singing and playing himself."

Before he could assume the glasses, Zeiler -- whose musical tastes run more toward stuff that doesn't sound a bit like Holly, i.e. doesn't rock (Dave Matthews, James Taylor, the Eagles, Shawn Colvin) -- had to pass a series of auditions, first in New York, then in London.

He studied, he says, by putting Holly CDs on repeat and reading books about the singer.

He never saw the show until the night before his audition in London.

"They let us see the show," he says, "so that we'd have an idea sort of what we were trying to go for."

He'd played guitar since he was 10, so that was nothing, really, learning Holly's songs.

He found it "relatively easy," he says, "because it's pretty straightforward and simple."

And the acting?

"Obviously," he says, "the script and the text of the show is not Chekhov. It's not the deepest thing in the world."

Still, the type of play it is was new to Zeiler.

"The genre of the show, as far as the theatrical nature of it goes, is something that I never trained for or studied or had been involved with before," he says. "It's sort of half concert and half play. And to adapt to that kind of theater was probably the most challenging thing."

And while he would have said he'd rather do a deeper kind of play three years ago, today he says, "That would have been a stupid thing to say, because you realize that all different forms of theater since the Greek times or whatever all have had their place and their time and their function in society. At the risk of getting too deep about it, I think everything from Ibsen to 'Buddy' to 'Cats' to 'Smokin' Joe's Cafe' to 'Parade' all has its place and serves a different function for the audience."

And the function it serves for the audience here in the States is decidedly different than the function it serves in London.

"In the U.K., London specifically, it's like 'Cats,'" says Zeiler. "Almost everyone who goes to see the show has been to see the show before. So for that reason a lot of people know when to stand up, they know when to clap. Here, and even on tour in Britain, when you go to a town where people haven't seen the show before, there's all these things to sort of get used to as an audience member. I think it takes some time for people to get the vibe, whereas in London people know that straight off the bat, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

"Here, you start from scratch, which for me is a lot more fun. You get to start with a fresh lump of clay."

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