Billy as Buddy

Billy as Buddy
UNO Alum (Winter 2005)
By Wendy Townley

Billy McGuigan’s eyes are just fine – the glasses are part of the job.

But the guitar. McGuigan, a professional musician, has used that guitar to channel the spirit (and sound) of the legendary Buddy Holly since a 2002 performance at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Today McGuigan has created a full-time career out of performing as the late Holly. His sold-out shows are often met by glowing reviews. His sound and moves leave audiences clapping and chanting for more.

The experience of bringing Holly to life has surprised McGuigan, a 30-year-old married father of one living in Omaha. He describes himself as a rather shy person who’d rather carry on quiet conversations when he’s not performing. He’s often stopped in public by fans who are surprised to see the youthful-looking McGuigan sans his spectacles.

“I do have a life outside of the glasses,” McGuigan says with a laugh.

That other life began when McGuigan was a student at Bellevue East High School in the early 1990s. McGuigan took to the stage at Bellevue East, performing in a number of plays and musicals at the school. Upon graduation, McGuigan enrolled at Northwest Missouri State University as a theater major. After a year, he moved back to Omaha and threw himself into the local theater scene, snagging roles at the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Bellevue Little Theatre. But the work wasn’t taking McGuigan where he hoped to go: becoming a full-time actor. He picked up small roles doing voice and on-screen work while earning a general studies degree at UNO. McGuigan, who graduated from UNO in 1999, had been playing guitar in a small band, trying to meld his talents behind the guitar pick and his love for the stage when a phone call changed everything.

The Omaha Community Playhouse was staging “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” in the fall of 2002. Playhouse officials felt McGuigan would be the ideal actor to play the lead role. McGuigan auditioned and accepted the role, without much knowledge of Holly’s life.

“I’m an insanely huge Beatles fan, and I knew they covered some of Holly’s songs,” McGuigan explains. “I knew he died from a plane crash and wore glasses.”

McGuigan threw himself into the role of playing Holly. He even shed 40 pounds – something McGuigan never did for an acting role.

He used the Internet to research Holly’s life. He watched “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” a documentary produced by Paul McCartney in 1987, every single day until the play closed. He read books about the late musician’s life.

He also began learning Holly’s music. Even the rehearsals felt different for McGuigan.

“They combined everything I really liked to do: to act and to sing. Before, I couldn’t do all of that at the same time. But I could do that with this role.”

Which each sway of his hips, each strum on his guitar, McGuigan’s excitement grew.

“It almost seems like (this role) was written for me,” McGuigan says. “In a weird way, I like how it fits me. I can act for part of the play. The rest of the play, I get to be a rock star.”

McGuigan’s talents catapulted him to rock star status during a preview performance of “Buddy” at the Omaha Community Playhouse. McGuigan says he was “in the zone” during the first half of the performance when a tornado warning cut the performance short and sent everyone to the basement. After a few musical performances to kill time, the warning was cancelled and the audience returned to the theater to the play’s final scenes of Holly’s concert.

“They (the audience) were on their feet for 25 minutes,” McGuigan recalls. “I remember my life changing at that moment. When that curtain fell down, people were just going crazy.”

The fall semester at UNO had begun, and McGuigan returned to obtain a second degree in teaching. However, his cell phone rang continuously from reporters requesting interviews about his performance. Most of those calls came while McGuigan was in class.

“I was virtually this unknown guy who’d done this play,” McGuigan says. “It was so chaotic. Thirty people wanted me (to perform) at parties and events. I thought this may have been the time to take a leap of faith.”

When classes ended that fall, McGuigan began his career playing Holly. He landed safely from that leap, inking a deal to perform “Buddy” twice a year at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

“Buddy” has taken to the road, as well. Both the Des Moines Playhouse and the Albuquerque Theatre reported “Buddy” as their highest grossing performance in both attendance and ticket sales. (The Omaha Community Playhouse saw the same success when “Buddy” opened in 2002.)

With the help of fellow Omaha musician Chris Acker, the two created “Rave On!” – a musical celebration of the lives of Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Sold-out crowds packed the Funnybone, an Omaha comedy club, to see “Rave On!” and the performances of McGuigan and his seven musicians. The group took its show on the road, performing across the Midwest.

Today, “Rave On!” has evolved into a one-man show with a band in theaters across the United States.

The “Rave On!” ensemble has performed as a pop concert with the Omaha Symphony, the Heartland Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

These days, McGuigan has a tough time finding time off. He travels several months out of the year, which leaves him just five weekends off every 12 months.

“When I’m home, I’m really just home,” McGuigan says. “I can spend two solid weeks with my family.”

Despite the requests from reporters and the sold-out shows, McGuigan remains surprised that his performance garners such attention.

“Over 180 performances of the (‘Buddy’) show, it still doesn’t get old. I feel like that guy who got lucky.”

Some might say Holly fans are even luckier.

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