BWW Interviews: Andy Christopher - Sprinting to Success
"I have crammed so much into the two years since I started in this business. I am sprinting because everyone around me has been doing this for decades and can enjoy their work at a nice peaceful saunter. I am playing catch up." The tall slim twenty-one-year-old actor-musician smiles humbly. Soft spoken, with a quiet charm and subtle sense of humor, Andy Christopher, the star of Maine State Music Theatre's current production, The Buddy Holly Story, which is garnering rave reviews in its latest production in Brunswick, Maine, is talking about his whirlwind two years as a professional actor and the long, sometimes circuitous, often serendipitous route which has brought him from Texas to New York and onto the national stage.
Christopher, who hails coincidentally from Lubbock, Holly's hometown, was fascinated with musicals from an early age. The son of a marketing executive and a visual artist, Andy and his brother Matthew grew up in a "family which thankfully exposed us to the arts." The actor tells how he and his older brother would sing along to recordings of Phantom and LES MISERABLES in their living room, using the couch as the barricade. "My brother would get to do all the big roles, and I would have to be Marius or Raoul," he chuckles. " We were so dorky, we would even build sets out of Legos and construct our own theatre."
But despite this love of musical theatre and a serious pursuit of competitive ballroom and Irish step dancing in his high school years - a career possibility cut short by a foot injury - Christopher's earliest vocational ambition was to become a fireman. However, by the time he entered college at age sixteen to study biology, he realized that "a firefighter should have more muscle mass than I did, so I decided to become a paramedic instead. I went to EMT school and was doing well so then I thought of becoming a doctor. I got onto a pre-med track at school and was working as a paramedic, but I started to feel burned out. I decided to take a break and study voice and music for a while."
It was at that point that Christopher matriculated at Texas Tech, where his brother was getting a master's degree in opera performance. While a student there in 2010, the West End tour of Buddy Holly was scheduled to come to Lubbock. He met its music director, John Bannister, who, Christopher says, "dragged me an audition where I sang a piece from Jersey Boys." Bannister, who has since become a mentor and close friend of the actor, thought Christopher "sounded great" and asked if he played guitar. "I told him I had never touched a guitar," Christopher recalls.
"Well, see if you can get a hold of one and try to learn," Bannister told him.
Christopher complied. "I sat down in front of You Tube for three straight days and I practiced and came back and played a song for them. They asked if I thought I could learn all twenty-one Buddy songs in the next two months, and I said I would give it a go. Bannister told me, ' No hard feelings if you can't, but then you're sacked, but if you do you'll play Buddy and alternate as the fourth Cricket on tour.' So, I buckled down and it became my job."
Not only did Christopher learn all the songs in Buddy Holly, but he got to play the role in Lubbock, and he went on to star in a couple other regional musicals, as well, among them Hank Williams: The Lost Highway, Godspell, and White Christmas. "I realized that music and acting, which had always been a part of my life growing up, were screaming to be recognized as my true passion." With the support and blessings of his family, Andy Christopher made a watershed decision. "In 2012 I sold my car for $2500, packed my bags and guitar, and bought a one-way plane ticket to New York City." He has not looked back since.
The last two years have been filled with engagements - Buddy Holly on national tour and performances in American regional companies - as well as with auditioning and learning new repertoire. In between gigs there have been the actor's proverbial "day jobs" - barista in Starbucks, bartending. Christopher takes it all in stride and embraces the flow of his new life. He muses on how some folks back home are skeptical about making theatre a profession. "They ask me 'what if you don't make it?'. But I am already making it, and even if I weren't, I love what I am doing. I wouldn't trade this for anything. It is a great deal of hard work that people don't always see. I am constantly auditioning. You have to be self-motivated and diligent. But there are so many possibilities! I love performing, but I also love the creation, the production side of theatre. I love writing and even the idea of perhaps directing some day. I see everything you can do, all the outlets. Who knows where acting will take me?" he enthuses.
But Christopher also applies a mature sense of perspective to his boundless passion. "You have to stop and reflect on where you are and where you were a year ago. I can remember thinking, 'Ah, if only I could get into Actor's Equity!' And here I am. I have been very fortunate to meet wonderful people on these jobs," he continues modestly. "It's not so much about any outstanding skill on my part" - critics and audiences would disagree - "but more about being prepared and in the right place at the right time. I am so blessed to be surrounded by people who inspire me."
Speaking of preparation, I ask Christopher what he has done to wear the role of Buddy Holly, as he does, like a second skin. He talks about his research. "I grew up listening to Buddy. On family vacations we'd bring along his CDs, much to my mother's chagrin, though she now loves the music." And then there was the learning to play the guitar, which he did largely by ear, using his foundation in vocal music, as well as his childhood stints in choirs and playing piano, as groundwork. And there is Christopher's keen ear for accents and eye for subtle mannerisms. "My brother and I watched lots of the Muppets when we were kids, and we would talk in different voices to each other. We still do. When we talk on the phone, one of us will speak in an accent, and the other will follow." As he says this, he inadvertently slips into Buddy's soft-spoken southern drawl. "I watched all Buddy's television clips; there aren't that many but there were enough to see his mannerisms. And once you do, you realize, you can't necessarily use those on stage because they would be boring if merely replicated."
"It's a tightrope you have to walk," he continues. You can't become an impersonator, and you can't do your take on Buddy Holly because people come to hear the music as they know it. But in some ways, Buddy's style of performing is outdated. We are so used to big flashy entertainment that we have become desensitized to what performances were like in the 50s. So it is about finding that balance between what his music really is, and what it would be like today if he were alive."
Christopher, however, has had some fortuitous help in finding the essence of Buddy Holly's character. While in Lubbock, John Bannister introduced Christopher to Eddie Weir, Holly's nephew, who helped the actor learn Buddy's music. Weir shared a few insider stories with Christopher, among them one about the time the young Eddie was irate because his uncle had promised to take him to the drive-in but forgot. When Eddie found Buddy sitting on the floor playing his guitar instead, he became so angry that he hit Holly over the head with a croquet mallet. Christopher quotes Eddie as saying, "I like to think that's when Buddy switched from country music to rock and roll!" The actor also met Ingrid Holly, Buddy's niece, and got to perform Peggy Sue in the presence of Peggy Sue Gerron and Holly's two brothers Larry and Travis. All these serendipitous experiences have coalesced into the touching and magnetic portrait of the legendary Holly that Andy Christopher brings to the stage.
And it is a portrayal that seems to affect audiences deeply. To what, I ask Christopher, does he attribute the outpouring of excitement and energy that crosses the footlights between cast and audience each night? Christopher credits Buddy Holly, himself, and his music:
"Buddy deserves to be out there and well known for what he did in that amazingly short eighteen-month career. He had an insane work ethic. It almost seems as if he intuited that he had limited time. Buddy Holly and Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson are the fathers of rock and roll; they've inspired so many other artists from Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to the Beatles, to Elton John. I want this character to affect the audience. I want them to see what Holly brought to the music world, and I want to help keep his legacy alive. I try to keep it simple because his music is so simple, yet every time you listen to it, you find a new complexity. I don't know if he knew he was doing that, but nevertheless, it was his great gift. I want to give audiences that gift of his music and of his life."
If the cheering, stomping, weeping, and, yes, smiling crowds in Maine this summer are any indicator, Andy Christopher has been doing just that!