Garland — Surprise, Ian Mead Moore! What began with a gig as Scott Eckert’s assistant music director for Garland Civic Theatre’s production of The Buddy Holly Story turned quickly into a bigger opportunity than he could have imagined.
At an early production meeting, Moore told TheaterJones, GTC’s two producers, David Tinney and Cheryl Pellett, and the director Dennis Canright, answered Moore’s question of who they had in mind to play Buddy Holly…by turning to look at him.
It was, he laughs, “almost like they had it planned.” Before he knew it, Moore had some Holly-related DVDs in his hand, and had promised to think seriously about the part.
And this week, he’ll be up onstage with a sunburst guitar and a band of Crickets, performing more than 20 vintage tunes live onstage—not to mention tackling the show’s leading role.
Moore moved from Little Rock to Dallas almost 10 years ago at a time when he’d taken a deliberate break from music to focus on acting. That changed three or four years ago, when he made a splash in Death the Musical II (an original show by Eckert at Pocket Sandwich Theatre), and went on to work with companies including Theatre Three, Imprint Theatreworks, Lyric Stage and Uptown Players.
TheaterJones talked with Moore about guitars—especially the legendary Fender Strat—and the uptick in musicals that call for actor/musicians, and about how intimidating it can be to play someone like Holly in front of Texas audiences who know—and love—every word he ever sang. (Don’t get nervous, Ian.)
TheaterJones: Buddy Holly is a favorite of mine—my rock ‘n’ roll memories reach back just about to that day in 1959 when ‘the music died.’ His music was fun, but I always liked his intriguingly odd and interesting lyrics.
Ian Mead Moore: They were not Dylan-esque by any stretch of the word, but in the context of the time they were significantly more complicated, and yes, quirky.
You had signed on to be [music director] Scott Eckert’s assistant music director on this production—and then at what point did they give you the side-eye and say, hey, would you like to…?
It was at our first production meeting, actually. Scott couldn’t be there, but I met with the show’s producers, Cheryl Pellett and David Tinney, and the director, Dennis Canright. And I was honestly caught flat-footed by it. I’d done this kind of thing before onstage, and know you have to lock down people in advance, because that capacity [to act and play live] is hard to find. So we were talking about pre-casting some of the core band and I said completely blithely, ‘Well, do you have anyone in mind to play Buddy Holly?’ And it was like a sitcom take. They looked at each other and then at me, and I went, ‘Oh…oh, okay.’
We kind of tabled it at the time, and I said I would think about it. I’d been hired to come in and take over the show when Scott needed to go to a different gig during the run. But I wasn’t planning to be onstage, and thought: now I have to play this favorite Texan and memorize all this stuff? I’m not 22 any more, and that’s a tremendous amount of work.
Were you more happy—or terrified—by the opportunity?
I wasn’t terrified, but I was thinking hard about whether I could do this. Holly is so well known, and people have expectations, so I had to decide: Can I do it up to the standard I hold myself to every time I perform?
It is a very precise, very recognizable sound and style—the look, the singing voice and guitar style. How have you prepped for it?
Dennis the director gave me the three DVDs he had that night—it was almost like they’d had it planned!—and I immediately started to work. I wasn’t terribly familiar with all of Holly’s discography, but I knew the top five big hits, certainly, and I knew he played hard. So that’s where I started, with how he played guitar. I watched one documentary that Paul McCartney produced in the ‘80s when a lot of the people he knew and worked with were still alive, including some band members. And they talked about his sound and why he broke away [from the usual sound of the day].
So I got some ideas of the musical underpinnings of what he was doing, and that helped. His vocal tics were very much from the country music world—that yodel thing he kind of co-opted and twisted—and the precision with which he played guitar is also taken very much from the country and bluegrass tradition. So there was this weird intersection of Holly applying precise guitar techniques to the rhythm-and-blues structure being played mostly by black R&B musicians. That form is fast and harder; there’s a lot more strumming going on.
Tell me about the guitars and drums we’ll see onstage; I’ve read you have a mix of lookalike and period instruments, and that some of you will be playing your own.
I’m playing a guitar that has a pretty awesome story to go with it, at least for me. Any time you see a [generic] drawing of a rock guitar—even an emoji of a guitar—it’s usually a Fender Stratocaster in a sunburst, which is Buddy Holly’s guitar. That’s how iconic the 1956 Fender he played has become. So I wanted it, and asked on Facebook if anyone could lend me one that looked exactly like that.
The bass player in the church gig I have on Sundays runs a used guitar shop, and thought he had one that would work. It’s a lookalike, not a Fender, but he donated it to the show, and also suggested we raffle off the guitar at the end [as a fundraiser]. He found a backup about a week later—just in case I broke a string—and donated that too. We’re raffling off the two of them at the end of the run.
So I’m playing something that completely has the right look. In the movie Gary Busey made of The Buddy Holly Story in the 1980s he played a white [Fender] Telecaster, which also was from the era—it was old enough—but it just wasn’t Holly’s guitar. Our second guitar player actually is playing an old Stratocaster. The bass player, who’s done the show six times, has a big upright bass that can do all those upright bass tricks—I won’t spoil it by telling—and the drummer has a vintage-look kit.
I’ll get off the guitar theme in a minute….
I like talking about guitars!
…but that bell-like upper tone you get from some of these old guitars—the sound Chuck Berry means in “Johnny B. Goode” when he says the guy can play a guitar “just like a-ringin’ a bell”—what makes that tone, that sound?
That’s the Fender Stratocaster sound. That’s why they persist, because it’s their pickups that make the sound. They only have one coil on them, so they’re thinner, but also a lot clearer. That’s one of those mojo things, a combination of the wood Fender used and how the pickups are wound. On other guitars the pickups are thicker and heavier, but if you want that sound, you need a Strat with a single coil on it.
The first notes of The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” have that sound too. It’s one of those ‘you know it when you hear it’ things….
It’s also partly the way Buddy played the guitar—it was really energetic, fun, peppy, but the music never sounds distorted or over-driven. It was in the way he hit the strings—the guitar sound itself was very dry and clean, no grunge or grit to it.
Were you a guitar guy from the start when you were growing up in Little Rock?
My parents put me and my little sister on piano when I was 11. I did that for four or five years, and for a student I was pretty good. But I picked up a guitar when I was 15 or 16, and never looked back. Something about the immediacy of it, of feeling the vibrations and the sound, appealed to me. I still love playing the piano, but the vitality of playing guitar really attracted me when I was a teen. Plus, it’s louder.
Were you pursuing a career with a band, or looking at musical theater when you came to Dallas a few years ago?
I wouldn’t say I’d given up on music and acting when I came to Dallas, but I took a break. I had a job in Little Rock, but my boss there knew I wanted to go somewhere bigger—and when an opening came up in Dallas, he told me about it. That was my pathway down here; I’d been in Little Rock forever, and the Dallas area is 50 times bigger. It wasn’t until I did a show called The Kountry Girls at Theatre Three [in 2015] that I thought about the combination of acting and music being a good skill set for me to develop.
And since then, you’ve worked with a really wide range of area theaters.
It’s been crazy. I probably played more in 2018 than I’d played in the ten years before.
Any favorite roles or experiences?
I’ll leap back to what I’m doing right now. What really kickstarted this, and made me think I could do more [both acting and playing music onstage] was Scott Eckert, who’s music-directing Buddy Holly, calling me up to be in his original show Death The Musical II at Pocket Sandwich Theatre in 2016. That was the first time I’d played through an entire show, and acted too—I had a couple of scenes, and a solo song. I’ve known Scott for years, and respect him so much. He’s a very exacting collaborator, so for him to choose me for his show was enormously gratifying. It’s one of my favorites, too, because I didn’t think I could do it until I did it. And that pretty much describes the last three or four years of my life—I keep getting these opportunities, and I haven’t failed yet.
Just in the past five or six years there seem to be so many musicals—Once, for instance—that feature either a band onstage or visible nearby, and often musicians who are both cast members and musical performers. So you’ve hit on a pretty useful ‘multi-tasking’ skill set, it seems.
I consider it payback for the years I spent not being cast in professional musicals because I didn’t have extensive dance training, or something like that. So now it’s my time to shine. [Laughs.] I was asked for advice recently for aspiring artists, and I said ‘learn as much as you can, because playing six instruments is the new triple-threat in theater.’
Because it seems every second new musical is more multi-disciplinary than the last. It’s totally unprecedented. It always had been acting, singing, dancing—but now you need to act and sing, but also play two or three instruments to performance standards. Sometimes I think that’s almost replacing choreography and dancing to some extent as the more important skill.
Can’t you dance while you play?
There are no pirouettes allowed if you have a guitar strapped to you onstage.
This run of The Buddy Holly Story marks the show’s 30th anniversary. [Created by British writer/producer Alan Janes, it premiered in 1989 as one of the very first jukebox musicals.] But there’s another important date involved with Garland’s production.
The run of our show includes the 60th anniversary of the plane crash in 1959 that ended Buddy Holly’s life. And the producers planned that; Cheryl is a huge Buddy Holly fan, and her father is of that era. He was actually at our rehearsal yesterday. Being in this anniversary year is already pretty cool; but actually having a performance on the exact date of the crash, February 3, is amazing.
I’m not from Texas, but I am extremely cognizant of the place Buddy Holly holds in the hearts of Texas music fans—so this is very special.
There’s always the lurking ‘What if he had lived?’ question? What do you think—if Buddy Holly had lived to be 75, would we have ended up admiring him more…or less?
You ask me that question and I get little chills, because I’ve thought about that a lot. Most people just know the sock hop hits he had, but in the second act I play the long Clear Lake, Iowa set, which includes songs he was working on right up to the day of the crash, really. And the music is so complex, not just compared to the Big Bopper stuff, but compared to pop songwriting at the time.
I don’t know, I don’t feel like he would have stayed in pop very much longer. His compositional talents were blooming so rapidly that he went in 18 months from three-chord jam songs to these lush, orchestrated pieces with strings. There was a lot of jazz-inspired stuff coming into his music. So, I don’t at all want to say it was ‘for the best,’ but who knows? We’ve seen what happens to people who stick around. There’s an ever-increasing risk, not just of scandals and such, but of simple irrelevancy.
It’s a really weird paradox, but sometimes you do have to flame out to make your mark.