with Matt Salisbury, Director of Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.
It’s 25 years since the curtains first opened on Buddyand one vital member of the production has been here from the start… Having seen thousands of performances, Matt Salisbury, the original Company Manager and now Director knows the show probably better than anyone else. Here we ask him 25 questions to mark this quarter century milestone.

1. So, when did you start working on the show and what other roles have you had over the years?
It all began in 1989. I was Company Manager for the entire time the show was running in London’s West End. From around 1996 I took on the role of Assistant Director.

2. This type of show with actor/musicians on stage had never been done before – were you sceptical about its chances of success?
Not sceptical, more nervous that it would be received well and would work as a piece of theatre. One always takes a leap of faith when something is done for the first time, but the original creator and author Alan Janes had total faith that we were working on something very exciting, and that the excitement of the songs would be just like the 1950s when Buddy wrote and performed them.

3. What do you remember about the auditions/casting and rehearsal process?
I started a week before the rehearsals in Plymouth. They were quite an experience. We had four weeks to get the show rehearsed and ready for an audience. There were many challenges which each day pushed us into realms we had never worked in before. To start with we didn’t have an instrument technician, so we had to find one to tune, repair and ready not just the guitars, but the basses, pianos and drums for the actors to play during the show. We also had to find another Assistant Stage Manager and wardrobe assistant as the show was just too big for one. The set was being built in Plymouth and every day new pieces of trucks would arrive for us to work with. Sometimes they worked, sometimes not, so had to be sent back and adapted. We started off in what seemed a large rehearsal hall but by the end of the second week it seemed so small.

4. I bet the atmosphere was electric before the opening night performance in Plymouth?
That’s an understatement. It was totally and utterly charged with excitement, trepidation and nerves. And not just from the cast. The technical teams had never worked on anything like this before, and with so many pieces of electric operated trucks and many flying pieces, and musical instruments and cables everywhere, and the show directed like a movie with barely a pause between scenes, everyone had to be so focussed. You could feel the tension throughout the theatre.

5. What was it like at the end of the show?
Unreal. The audience would not let us leave the stage. We came back for encore after encore until we had run out of songs. I think the show ran 25 minutes longer than it should’ve done.

6. All Company Managers compile a record of what happens at every show - do you still have the show report for performance no 1?
Sadly not. Those were the days before computers and all show reports had to be typed up with carbon paper so copies could be made. I really wish I could see it now. I would be horrified reading about all the technical mishaps that happened behind the scenes that night.

 7. Buddytook London by storm. There were stories in the press about the dress circle structure shaking at the Victoria Palace due to the audiences getting up and dancing during the show. Is that true?
Absolutely. It moved so much that you could visibly see it and dust would fall into the stalls. In the dress circle foyer you could feel the building move. However, it was perfectly safe as it was a cantilevered structure built in the 1910s and was supposed to move. There had no doubt been much worse years ago when the theatre was home to music hall and there were many more people seated up there. However, it must of been a little un-nerving if you happened to be on the front row or directly underneath.

8. How many performances did Buddy play in the West End?
5,140 at the Victoria Palace and Strand Theatres and in 2007-09 another 681 performances at the Duchess Theatre.

9. Has the show changed at all over the years?
The show has not changed that much in 25 years but every new production brings something fresh to the show. The beauty of live theatre is that every show is a unique performance and that’s why our fans love to come back to see Buddy again. Our cast know that back in the ‘50s rock & roll was new, dangerous, edgy and very much a youth expression. This feeling comes across on stage and it’s what keeps it so relevant today. It’s also crucial that the cast remember our show is about real life people. There’s a wonderful responsibility in this.

10. What about the amazing army of fans that we have? Do you still keep in touch with them?
Yes, quite a few I’m glad to say. Our fans are terrific and have followed the show all this time and have supported us throughout. Our fans have helped keep the name of Buddy Holly alive, not just by being in the theatre but by talking about the show and being ambassadors for us and the great man.

11. Didn’t you set up one of the first pre-internet fan clubs for a show? Is that still running?
Oh yes. It’s alive and thriving. Now it is an internet club but we do still have over 1,000 members from all over the world. I would like to think that we were leading the way with this way back in 1990. I know there are many fans who have met their partners when seeing Buddy, a few have got married and have had kids, some have just remained good friends all this time and keep coming back to see the new productions. It’s wonderful seeing old friends again and reminiscing about the show and the people who brought it to life.

12. Did any of those involved at the beginning think for a second that 25 years on the show would become the ‘World’s Most Successful Rock & Roll Musical’?
I don’t think anyone thought the show would be around 25 weeks later let alone 25 years! Shows then just did not last that long. I remember at the end of the opening night in London talking to a good ol’ boy Percy, an in-house electrician who had worked at the Victoria Palace for 48 years. We were in the wings looking on as ‘Oh Boy’ was being played at the end of the show. The cast were so excited and the audience all up and dancing and cheering, and I asked him if he thought the show would run? He said “I'll give it five years”. I looked at him with a smile and he added “I’ve never seen anything like this in all my days”. Well he was wrong, but I knew then if it could move him then it would move anyone, and here we are 25 years later still talking about it.

13. What do you think it is about Buddy that keeps audiences coming to see the show year after year?
The music. The innocence of the story of Buddy and his growth as a teenager into a man and a musical genius. The energy we create and which the audiences absorb and then feed back to us. The sheer feel good factor that the show brings to the theatre night after night. It’s infectious and genuine and unbelievably powerful.

14. How many times do you think you’ve watched the show?
I would not want to put a number on this, but it has to be well over a 1000 times.

15. What is your most memorable Buddy-related experience over the years?
There are so many. One in particular springs to mind; John Smith then leader of the Labour Party came to see the show with his wife and daughter who was celebrating her birthday. It was a family outing and very relaxed. When I walked him to his seats after an interval drink so many people were coming up to him wishing him good luck and giving him support. It moved him in a very humble way. Two days later I received a hand written thank you note from him on House of Commons paper. They had all really enjoyed the show and wanted me to thank all the team. Later that morning I heard on the radio he had died of a massive heart attack. It reminded me of how temporary our lives are, and like Buddy he was taken from his people far too soon.

The other is about Carl Perkins; writer of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. I received a phone call one afternoon at the Strand Theatre from someone saying he was Carl Perkins' manager and that Carl wanted to see the show tonight. No problem. Oh and can he get up and jam with the band at the end? No problem, I said. What would he like to play? How about ‘Blue Suede Shoes’? What key? It doesn’t matter. Well the long and short of it was Carl got up at the end of the show and sang ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ with us. I think it was on the 40th anniversary of the song being first released. Amazing! The audience could not believe what they were witnessing. What a great guitarist and such a voice and charisma. And we all had a great night in the bar afterwards. Boy, he had some stories!

16. Are there any famous faces that stick in the mind who’ve been to see the show?
Maria Elena, The Crickets, Vi Petty, Carl Perkins, Paul McCartney, Princess Diana, the England football team, John Smith, Bobby Vee, to name but a few. One of my favourite moments was seeing Maria Elena on the opening night being totally immersed in the show and laughing, dancing and crying with us. I think it was then that she fell in love with the show and the show fell in love with her.

17. Have there been any disasters with the show along the way?
No disasters as such but things that go wrong. Talcum powder on a drum kit which made us stop the show – it was a prank from one of the actors – sets that break or didn’t work, bomb scares, bouts of illness that really put pressure on all of us to deliver the show and power failures. The usual sort of hiccups that all shows have to deal with, but luckily no disasters.

18. Have you ever had to go above and beyond the call of duty and appear on stage in order to cover the role of an absent or sick performer?
Oh yes, I used to quite regularly go on stage as a backing singer at the end concert. Or be a DJ or other small role. In all honesty I did not want to do it but when there is no one else... well, the show has to go on!

19. We often hear talk of being part of the ‘Buddy family’. Is that a good way of describing all those who’ve been part of the show over the years?
I always say to cast members when they leave the show after a year or so that you may leave Buddybut Buddy will never leave you. We have had surprisingly few actors in the roles over the years because they just want to stay on for another contract. This is a great testament to a show and makes for a really tight knit and happy group.

20. OK – so how many marriages on the show along the way? Any Buddy babies?
Goodness. Among the cast there must have been at least eight marriages and maybe seven babies.

21. Why have you stayed with the show for so long?
Being part of something unique and heartfelt every night is beyond comparison and description. When you see how the show affects people, the happiness it brings, not just to audiences but to those who work on it, it sort of gets into your blood, into your DNA. I don’t think there's another show that could make one feel such things. And besides… it beats working!

22. Over the years you’ve formed a very close relationship with Maria Elena Holly – she’s still an amazing supporter of the show isn’t she?
Totally. She does such a fantastic job in supporting us and all we do. I’ve been so lucky to get to know her quite well over the years and I’m always amazed at the enthusiasm she has and the un-swerving dedication she shows towards keeping Buddy and his legacy alive.

23. If you could ask Buddy Holly one question, what would it be?
What is your next song about? And, when you write a song do you start with a lyric or with the music?

24. Who is your favourite Buddy and why?
Oh, that’s difficult. I’ve many favourites and it would be wrong of me to single out one. Needless to say I think our current Buddy Glen Joseph is absolutely terrific. And then of course there was Paul Hipp, our first Buddy – total rock and roll; Chip Esten – action Buddy and a brilliant actor; Joe Lutton – another American who was so dynamic to watch; Alex Bourne – England’s favourite Buddy and again a great singer and actor; Gus McGregor – who was an amazing guitarist, singer and actor too! Dean Elliott, Martin Fisher, Billy Geraghty – all wonderful and totally engaging. 

25. What’s your favourite song in the show and why?
If I had to choose one it would be ‘Not Fade Away’. It is still such a strong song and must have been thrilling to hear it when it was first written in 1957. It influenced so many famous bands including: the Rolling Stones, Foreigner, the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, Status Quo, the Byrds. It was way ahead of its time. It’s got an infectious beat and feel and truly memorable lyrics which show that Buddy was not only a great musician but could write a perfect song from top to bottom. “My love is bigger than a Cadillac/I’ll try to show it if you drive me back”... fantastic and so rock & roll!