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Singer survives opening week crisis to star as Hank

Andy Christopher stars as Hank Williams in 'Lost Highway.' Andy Christopher stars as Hank Williams in 'Lost Highway.'

A friend drove Andy Christopher to Lubbock to try out for "The Buddy Holly Story," although why either thought he'd have a shot at a national touring production role is a bit of a mystery.


He had no training as an actor. He had most recently been an EMT studying for med school. He didn't read music. And the instrument that's the symbol of rock'n'roll? It might as well have been a picture in a book.
"I went in and sang some Frankie Valli, some 'Jersey Boys.' They asked me if I played guitar and I said I'd never touched a guitar.
"They said, 'We want to see you back but we want you to learn "Everyday" on the guitar, just the chorus. Do you have access to a guitar?'"
Half beat.
"Lubbock, Texas, I'm sure I can track down a guitar somewhere. So I borrowed a friend's guitar, sat down in front of YouTube for three straight days, and came back and played 'Everyday' for them, and they said, 'We're opening in June. You got three months. Do you think you can learn the 19 songs in the show for the opening?' And I said, 'Well, yeah, I think I can.' That was my first time picking up a guitar, back in 2010, and I haven't put it down since."
For the national touring production of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," his learning pace accelerated. Because he switched off with another singer on the Buddy Holly role, he also had to learn the lead guitar parts. As Hank says in the current Playhouse show, "Don't that beat the cat backwards."


Choir loft to big stage

If music has come to Andy Christopher on a need-to-know basis, he has proven to be an extraordinarily gifted vessel in the receiving. Now starring in "Hank Willliams: Lost Highway" on the Main Stage of the Flat Rock Playhouse, Christopher is something of an uncut diamond, well suited to the role of a country star who came from Alabama, sang some of the most heartfelt country songs ever, achieved stardom too big to handle and died in the back seat of a Cadillac on New Year's Day of 1953 at age 29.

Andy2Andy Christopher stars as Hank Williams in 'Lost Highway'Except for the drinking and the depression and the dying in a luxury sedan, Andy Christopher was typecast —a freshly scrubbed 20-something from the South who stepped out of a choir loft and onto a big stage. He has a rich and warm voice, and the exuberance of Hank's earlier years — usually.
The day "Lost Highway" opened Christopher was a figure in Hank's saddest song — the whippoorwill that "sounds too blue to fly." Except Christopher, star of the show, could scarcely squeak a peep.
On Monday night, 43 hours before the show was to open, "I kind of lost my upper range and I said that's weird," he recalled. "I'll go to bed and wake up tomorrow and be fine, and I woke up the next morning and I just didn't have a voice. It was so horrible because I didn't feel bad, it's just that the voice wasn't there and I had a whole bunch of junk. So I self-medicated like crazy. I had a Prednisone left over from an earlier thing this year."
He didn't self-medicate like Hank Williams self-medicated?
"No, not quite to that extreme," he said with a laugh. "I was just doing everything to get back. I tried to get through Tuesday — Tuesday night just did not have a voice, was having to mark sing a lot of stuff, just really frustrating. Wednesday rolled around and matinee rehearsal was the same sort of deal, marked everything. Mark singing is you're just singing very quietly, you're not singing full out. Opera singers usually do it in rehearsal to save their voice."
The Playhouse had to cancel the opening turning cars away from the Rock and handing out refunds. The star went to an urgent care clinic.
"They said, 'You came down with this virus that's going on. It's good that you're in as a good a health as you are because if you weren't so healthy this would have taken you out for a couple of weeks and you'd be bedridden for a lot of it.'"
The doctor's order was the worst possible news for a singer.
"Vocal rest is the thing you're just going to have to do," the doctor told him.
"So from Wednesday to Sunday I didn't say a word outside doing the show. And Wednesday after I got back, our musical director said 'I'm going to stand on the side and you're going to lip-sync just for tonight.' That kind of breaks some union rules but it's theater and the show must go on. We did it and it worked out well. I felt horrible, emotionally, just because ... of all the weeks this is the worst one I could have lost my voice."
Director Vincent Marini and choreographer Jennifer Jancuska made adjustments while Christopher recovered. By Saturday he was OK.
"It really was amazing to see this cast come together and I was really overwhelmed with how supportive everybody was and how on the ball they were with learning new things to cover what I couldn't do," he said. "We all still put the show together."


Re-enacting 'Les Miz'

Growing up in the small East Texas town of Bullard — "smack dab between Dallas and Shreveport" — Christopher saw the big shows that came to the area.
"They took us to see 'Les Miz' and 'Phantom' and anything that was coming through," he said of his parents, Don and Katy Smith (his real last name). "My brother and I reenacted 'Les Miserables' daily in our living room, on our couch that doubled as a barricade. My brother really was the driving force behind that. He especially had this passion for performing and opera and musicals."
To this day, Andy and that influential brother, Matthew, speak to one another in voices and accents.
"Growing up, we were big fans of the Muppets and much to our mother's chagrin we always talked like the Muppets outside of the movies," Christopher said. "She had to put up with a lot of different voices and accents throughout our childhood. Funny thing is we never really grew out of that. We'll call each other up well into our 20s and whoever talks first kind of sets whatever accent or voice we're doing the rest of the phone call.
"I actually just spoke with my brother this morning, talking logistics for he and his wife to come to see the show. This morning I think we were Russian. It makes it easy to step into different dialects and voices, different characters."
Do they do this face to face?
"Sometimes when our mother is in the room," he said. "Her most hated accents are Russian and the Indian accent that we do."
Although he goes by chord charts, reading music would be "like a toddler trying to read 'Crime and Punishment.'" His piano playing was self-taught.
"I taught myself how to do that from listening to a CD," he said. "I'd pop a CD in and listen to it and then work it out on the piano. That really trained my ear to the ability to listen to something and play it."
After the Buddy Holly tour ended, Christopher landed roles in regional productions of "Godspell" (Jesus) and "Irving Berlin's White Christmas."
"Then in February 2012 I bought my one-way plane ticket and moved out to New York and decided to go for it," he said.
He remains close to his family. In the playbill he thanks "Dad & Mom, Matt & Allie, and (little sister) Keylee for all of your love & cell phone minutes."
He got the role as Hank Williams when he sent a YouTube video of one of his performances. And now he is having big fun.
"It's a blast," he said of his first Flat Rock Playhouse role. "I love how intimate the space is. There are really great audiences here. It's so much more enjoyable to perform in venues like this. We're just having fun. This cast is a lot of fun. Even with the heavy show that this is, it's still outrageously enjoyable."

"Hank Williams: Lost Highway" plays through Nov. 3 at the Main Stage of the Flat Rock Playhouse. For tickets call 828.693.0731 or go to http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.