Published in KPBS On Air Magazine January 1997
Plaid, as you know, is made up of little squares. So is “Forever Plaid”.
The enormously popular musical revue, enjoying yet another sellout run in its fourth visit to San Diego (at the theater in Old Town, indefinitely) tells the nostalgic tale of four incurably nice, good-hearted geeks who sing their lungs out in one of those tight-harmony guy groups of the innocent, pre-rock ’60s.
San Diegan Steve Gunderson plays Sparky, the ham of the group. It’s a role he’s portrayed five times before (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Las Vegas), but it comes naturally to him for other reasons.
“He reminds me of me as a kid,” Gunderson laughs. “I always liked to be the center of attention. I played tricks on people. I was very mischievous. Sparky wears a retainer, which he’s always taking out, he wiggles his butt too much during the dance numbers….. I think I was a geek in high school, but I didn’t know it.”
Neither do Sparky, Smudge, Jinx and Frankie, who met in their high school audio-visual club (“the projector sector”). That just about says it all. Their idol is Perry Como. Their songs range from novelty numbers like “Day-O,” “Papa Loves Mambo” and “Lady of Spain” (that timeless accordion favorite), to ‘heavies’ like “Chain Gang” and “Sixteen Tons,” right up to romantic tear-jerkers like “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.” “Forever Plaid” brings back memories of bowties and white bucks, even for those who never wore them.
Gunderson, 39, is obsessed with the old stuff he never knew.
He co-wrote, arranged and starred in “Suds, The Rockin’ Sixties Musical Soap Opera” and composed the score for the homegrown, original musical “Dixie Highway”, which was set in 1969. He co-wrote (with former schoolmate Kathy Najimy) a musical revue called “Back to Bacharach and David”, based on the sixties songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David (you know, “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” etcetera). When that show opened off-Broadway in 1993, the New York Times called him “a gifted performer and arranger.” Now he’s going even further back in time.
“I’m a Bronté nut,” he confesses. He’s already “written a mountain of music” for a theater piece about the strange, literary, 19th century English family.
With all his composing kudos, he still considers himself “an actor who sings and writes music.” Does he ever. And it all began in San Diego.
While he was a student at Crawford High, he appeared in two Old Globe theater productions, and then went on the road with “The Grapes of Wrath”, starring the young, then-unknown actor, Ed Harris. The show folded, but Gunderson got his Equity (actors’ union) card and moved to New York.
He started writing musically comic cabaret material, and opened “The Melinda and Steve Show” with his long-time buddy, Melinda Gilb. And that led to his meeting Will Roberson, the mega-talented director who collaborated with Gunderson on “Suds “ and “Dixie Highway”. “Suds” debuted at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in 1987 and then went on to the Old Globe, Off-Broadway, and a return visit to the Rep in 1995. “Dixie Highway” won an L.A. Critics’ Robby Award for Best Original Score (music by Gunderson, lyrics by Roberson). Roberson, who succumbed to AIDS in 1994, was an inspiration to Gunderson.
“Will was really instrumental in bringing out the musical side of me,” he says, “and that changed my life. He was always pushing me to the edge. I really had to pull myself up by my bootstraps after he passed on. Either I had to find a new mentor or push myself like he pushed me. I’m trying to do that.”
Since 1994, Gunderson has written the score for the San Diego Rep’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol”, and in 1994 and 1995, he also played Bob Cratchit. But this past Christmas, he was busy being Plaid.
“Steve’s so creative and funny,” says “Plaid” director-creator-author Stuart Ross, who has staged more than 50 productions of his little cottage-industry. “He makes it fun to do.”
Bringing “Plaid” back to San Diego created anxiety for Ross. “I don’t remember being this nervous about the show in years and years,” he said. (The revue debuted locally at the Globe in 1991). “It’s like coming home. You just want it shown off in the best way. I’ve had more fun with this than any other company — and worked harder, too. San Diego is very dear to us. The response we were given here, by audiences, theaters, producers, tech people, they all just seemed to really appreciate it and want it.”
And they still do. Before the show even opened in November, it was extended two months. The first day of ticket sales broke all box office records at The Theatre in Old Town, with a take of $28,000.
What is it about this little fluff piece that has captured this city? “It’s a really good time,” says Gunderson. “It makes you feel good. It’s entertainment in the true sense of the word. People hear it’s this musical revue, and then they’re surprised at how clever and funny it is. It’s quite touching, sweet and really heartfelt.”
So, could “Plaid” last forever? Put it this way: Do YOU still have a plaid skirt, shirt or tie?
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.