In a couple weeks, musician Billy McGuigan will celebrate his 500th performance at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
The milestone will occur during the run of his musical revue, “Rock Twist,” which opens Friday.
He debuted at the Playhouse in 1994 with a role in “Sweet Charity.” In 2002, he portrayed the title character in “Buddy,” a biographical show about iconic rocker Buddy Holly, whose burgeoning career tragically ended when he died in a 1959 plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Playing Holly was a game-changer. It inspired McGuigan to create his own Holly tribute show, “Rave On,” which has appeared at the Playhouse and has been a touring success.
He created a Beatles show, “Yesterday and Today,” that returns to the Playhouse each holiday season. And in 2017, he premiered “Rock Twist,” which offers a big-band take on rock ‘n’ roll classics and a rock take on some pop standards.
He’ll step on a Playhouse stage for the 500th time (not counting rehearsals) on Aug. 17, the night before “Rock Twist” closes. He’s somewhat bemused about the feat.
“It blows my mind a little bit,” he said. “This coming from somebody who could barely hold a job before that. This is the 16th year I’ve been doing this as my only full-time job.”
He hasn’t been keeping track, but he estimates that he’s played about 3,000 shows overall. In the beginning, he toured for about six months of the year, and now he’s on the road for all but about six weeks or so.
McGuigan celebrated his 500th Playhouse show by examining “Rock Twist” with an eye toward changes. Performing at Jazz on the Green made him realize he could put together a bigger band, and he assembled the 15-piece Pop Rock Orchestra for the show, with an additional string player and a couple of different saxophone players.
He engaged a new arranger, former Omahan Leon Adams of Seattle, who once was music director for the now-closed John Beasley Theatre.
Musician Tara Vaughan, who just had her own McGuigan-produced show at the Playhouse, also is arranging a couple of songs for “Rock Twist.” She and McGuigan will sing a duet on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the end of the first act.
And McGuigan has been making the show more autobiographical, though that won’t be apparent to the audience, he said.
“It’s really big rock ... ELO (Electric Light Orchestra), Elton John, ‘Spinning Wheel’ (by Blood, Sweat & Tears), Tina’s ‘Proud Mary’ (the Turner version as opposed to Creedence Clearwater Revival),” he said. “It’s more me — let’s go for big and brassy instead of complicated and sophisticated.”
He said he sees the possibility for collaboration with the Playhouse on new shows. That’s good news, said Playhouse Executive Director Katie Broman.
“Billy’s family here,” she said. “He really is. It makes me excited that he wants to continue to have a great relationship with the Playhouse because I feel the same. He has a creative vision and an electric stage presence that our audiences really respond to.”
No matter what, McGuigan is sure he’ll still be in the music business 10 years from now. In addition to performing, he’d like to work on developing new artists such as Vaughan and producing their shows.
“I’m currently working and talking with some people and seeing what I can do,” he said. “You can’t hoard your expertise for yourself.”
In the meantime, he’s stoked about opening a fresh version of “Rock Twist.” The show has been popular in previous years, with people dancing in their seats, standing through some numbers and generally behaving as though they’re at an arena concert. This year should give them even more opportunities to do that, he said.
“We’ve upped our game in every way. It’s elevated rock ‘n’ roll.”
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Lincoln Crossroads Music Festival puts focus on cultural diversity
The executive director of the new Lincoln Crossroads Music Festival has some admirable goals.
Erik Higgins designed the festival to celebrate the capital city’s rich cultural history and its successful integration of immigrants from around the world. It will feature a melting pot of music from many traditions in addition to workshops for various groups.
“We can be an example and provide inspiration for how communities can and should be enriched by the cultural diversity in their midst,” Higgins said in a press release.
The core of the event will be classical, folk and world music concerts and storytelling featuring the music of people who are native to Lincoln or those who have settled in the area. Traditions and regions represented will include Native American tribes, Middle Eastern Yazidis, Scandinavia, Ukraine and the Andean region of South America.
Venues for the inaugural festival include First Plymouth United Church of Christ, the Howell Theatre on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Westminster Presbyterian Church and the International Quilt Museum.
Workshops are aimed at various groups: Lincoln Public Schools music students, families for whom English is not a first language, the mental health community and clientele of Appleseed Nebraska, the Asian Community and Cultural Center and the Bay.
NET Nebraska is taping an 11-episode podcast about the festival that will be promoted throughout the region. At least one festival performance will be broadcast live statewide on NET Radio and every concert will be recorded for later broadcasts.
The festival runs from Aug. 5-11. A schedule, tickets and other info is at lincolncrossroadsmusic.org.