Published in Pasadena Magazine May 2001
The world’s gone mad for Plaid. Forever Plaid creator/director Stuart Ross can’t even remember how many productions he’s directed (“52 or 54,” he thinks), or how many have been mounted in which foreign countries (“Japan, England, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic and sort of Australia”).
“I just kept doing it because it was so much fun. You get so grateful — and so controlling,” he laughs. “You don’t want to see it screwed up. It wasn’t as obsessive as it sounds. It’s just that others tend to cookie-cutter it. There are rules, but it has to be individualized. It’s no fun for me if it’s not… and the show works better. Big producers always want shows that don’t depend on the personalities of the performers. But this show does. It brings out who the actors are.”
At the celebration of the 1000thPlaid performance in San Diego, Ross mounted a “Night of 1000 Plaids,” and there were scores of Plaids onstage (culled from the 400-500 actors who’ve appeared in the show over time). Amazingly, though they were multiple actor/singers doing the same moves for the same character, each actually did seem a bit different from the others.
Now, just think about plaid for a minute. It’s warm, it’s soft, it’s comfortable, it’s familiar… and it’s made up of little squares. Like its nerdy fabric namesake, “Forever Plaid” never seems to go out of style. Audiences fail to tire of it, fighting their way in to see the simple little musical myriad times (Bring Grandpa! What about Aunt Bertha?). It ran for 5 years in San Diego, though Chicago still holds the record, at 7 years.
“It’s kind of like a time warp,” Ross admits of the show, as well as his ongoing participation in it. “I have to keep writing all these productions down, so I know where my life went.”
Frankly, the show has no particular message or meaning, no depth beyond its surface silliness. But between the hundreds of productions and the commemorative T-shirts pencils and CDs, it’s a veritable cottage industry, a little idea that, Frankenstein-like, has taken on a life of its own.
It all started back in 1987, when Ross put together a three-song vignette featuring a guy-group called The Four Plaids. It was a big hit at the tiny West Bank Café in New York. Ross started adding songs, and then, after several incarnations, he maxed out his credit card and staged it again in 1989, at Steve McGraw’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The rest has become theater legend.
The basic premise hasn’t changed since the outset. The Plaids are dead when we meet them. The four geeks from the high school audio-visual club were on their way to their big break — at the Airport Hilton cocktail bar — when their car hit a busload of Beatlemaniac parochial school virgins, and the poor guys were instantly killed. The girls remained blessedly intact. That was February, 1964; now, the Plaids are getting another chance. One night to come back and do the whole show they’d planned, so many years ago. This gives them an excuse to sing some spectacularly harmonied hits from the ’50s and early ’60s — everything from “Lady of Spain” to “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Sixteen Tons” to “Heart and Soul.”
But what is it about this nostalgic trifle that grabs audiences and won’t let them go?
“They’re such lovable losers,” says Ross, without hesitation. “They have no self-esteem. But by the end, they become proud of who they are. Everyone roots for them to get what they want. Of course there’s a nostalgia factor, and that keeps the older folks coming back. But there’s also a childlike sensibility — which is how I like to write — and that brings in the young kids, who can also identify with lovable losers. Eighty year-olds and 13 year-olds fall in love with the Plaids. They write love letters. They sing the songs. They want to meet the actors. The songs tickle everybody. Carol Channing loves Plaid. And the Queen saw it. And Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman and Rosemary Clooney and Perry Como,” whose 1950s TV show is featured prominently as a fantasy gig for the Plaids.
Ross is planning to give a holiday twist to the show, especially for the Pasadena Playhouse production (November 2-December 16).
“This is my valentine to Pasadena. We’ll change at least five or six songs,” he promises, adding enigmatically, “And there will be some big surprises.
“Instead of the Perry Como or Ed Sullivan show, the Plaids will appear in their own Christmas special. They don’t know it’s Christmas; they come back [to earth] because they forgot their maracas… Hopefully, it’ll be a tribute to ‘White Christmas’ — there’s not a better ’50s icon. But it won’t be all Christmas. We’ll do ‘The Dreidel Song.’ And an incredible version of ‘Memories’ from Cats. And an upbeat arrangement of ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,’ done with electric razors.”
In his non-Plaid spare time, Ross just finished writing and directing a new musical about The Boswell Sisters (a real-life, influential jazz girl-group of the 1930s), which premiered at the Globe Theatres in San Diego this past summer. He directed the sitcom “Veronica’s Closet” and will be a guest director for “Frazier” this season. And he’s been working on a “very difficult, complicated new show,” Radiant Baby, for the Public Theatre in New York, about “the whole ’80s disco artworld chic.”
He swears that The Boswells isn’t the female version of the Plaids, or Plaid II. “If you’re talking about a campy laugh-fest, the answer is no. But if you’re talking theme, trying to find your own value and meaning in life, then yes, I guess it is similar. We should all be so lucky that it’s a Plaid II, in the best sense of the word. Those are higher expectations than we can possibly meet.”
When asked what it is about tight harmony groups that makes him go gaga, he says, “They just make you feel so happy, you want to share that feeling. I was brought up in chaos and ADD and I don’t know my right from my left. But this is a beautiful, collective way people can get together — one song, one sound. Harmony soothes the soul.”
Ross still has Plaid dreams. “I’d love to do a Nickelodeon series on the Plaids, where they come back to an MTV show in the mid-’90s. Juxtaposing that makes it kind of nifty.”
Nifty??? Sounds like Ross really is an (eternal) child of the ’50s.
Pat Launer is resident theater critic for KPBS radio and TV in San Diego, where she is host of the Emmy-nominated all-theater TV program, “Center Stage.” She also writes for On Air Magazine, Performing Arts Magazine and theatermania.com.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.