Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2001
They were arguably the best female jazz vocal group of all time. And who would be more likely to be fascinated by this tight-harmony girl-group than the king of the ultimate tight-harmony boy-group — Stuart Ross, creator of Forever Plaid?
Ross is quick to point out that his new musical, The Boswell Sisters (premiering at the Globe Theatres July 7-August 11) isn’t just a spinoff of the Plaids. In fact, quite the reverse. He sees The Boswells as a prequel to Plaid, one that’s been germinating for 20+ years.
In 1980, Ross created “a little revue” of the Boswells’ music, with partner Mark Hampton (writer of the acclaimed one-woman show, Full Gallop). Though it ran for 13 weeks Off Broadway, it never went further; Ross considers it his “first flop.” But it made him wonder, ‘What would this be like with guys?’ The rest is theater history.
Seven years later, the Plaids were born, and they’ just keep coming back from the dead to sing their fabulous ’50s-’60s songs to a welcoming worldwide audience, in hundreds of productions, including five sellout years in San Diego (our longest-running show ever). Surely, by this time, Ross could retire and relax. But he never got those Boswells off his mind.
In 1996, he and Hampton revisited the revue. They developed it into a full-fledged musical at the National Music Theatre Conference, but again, no takers.
Then Ross took one more stab at it. “I went to my first-choice theater, the greatest theater in America, the greatest place to work out of town. I went to Jack O’Brien [Globe Theatres artistic director]. I love working there. I know their audience. And I owe them so much because of Plaid.”
Back in 1987, the Globe was the only big regional theater willing to take a chance on a small show like Forever Plaid, and that was its springboard to success. Ross had pitched it for the small Carter Centre Stage, but O’Brien went for the big space (the Old Globe). “I wanted The Boswells in the small space, too, and Jack said, ‘Take a lesson from the Plaids.”
So, once again, his small piece, completely re-conceived, is going into a large theater. “This show,” he vows, “has nothing to do with what we did before, which was called The Heebie-Jeebies.” And it is not Plaid II.”
That was a revue; this is a book-musical. Those were fictional characters, “lovable losers,” as Ross fondly refers to them. The Boswells were real-life winners, who were extremely rich — during the Depression. They were a major sensation. They started musical trends. They invented ultra-tight, 3-part harmonies for women and developed a wide range of vocal gymnastics. Irving Berlin once said, “Nobody sang my music better than the Boswell Sisters.”
The sibs grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by Southern gospel and the blues. Lead singer Connee, who later went on to have a successful solo career, was in a wheelchair (due to polio or a childhood accident, depending on the source), but no regular wheelchairs for her. She sat in beautiful custom chairs that matched her outfits (a little like those singing boys with everything Plaid).
The sisters first performed in vaudeville houses close to home, but by 1925, they were featured on radio, with their own arrangements and their own accompaniment: Connee on cello, sax and guitar; Martha on piano; and Helvetia (“Vet”) on guitar, banjo and violin. They worked with many of the jazz greats of the day, and topped the Hit Parade with “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” (from the Marx Brothers’ film ‘Monkey Business’) and “The Object of My Affection.” In 1931, theirs was the first record ever to sell 100,000 copies. They appeared in the 1932 film extravaganza, ‘The Big Broadcast,’ with Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway.
“They became a phenomenon in five years,” explains Ross. “They were the toast of the world. And then they just stopped. They split up. So what happens when they get back together?”
That’s the premise and starting point of Ross and Hampton’s new musical.
“It’s Southern,” the funny, chatty Ross chuckles. “It gets very gothic. Family. Relationships. Uncovering.layers of truth. And some humor. But it’s also about their greatness, how they made their very intricate music. It’s much more serious than Plaid. But there is one common theme: like the Plaids, they were trying to find their own value and meaning in life.
“When the sisters get back together, it’s less than a love-fest. Out of family anxiety, what could have been a tragedy, comes this glorious music. The show is kind of like Crimes of the Heart meets Ain’t Misbehavin’. ”
The book-musical features 20 songs (including “Top Hat,” “Dinah” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”). The scene is set in the family farmhouse in upstate New York — near where the Plaids hung out, and right near where the Ross family had a diner, whose jukebox introduced young Stuart to all those Golden Oldies.
So what is it about Stuart Ross and tight harmonies, anyway??
“It just makes you feel so happy,” he says from his L.A. home, with a smile in his voice. “I was brought up in chaos and ADD and I don’t know my right from my left. But harmony soothes the soul.”
[The Boswell Sisters previews July 1-6 at the Old Globe, and runs July 7-August 11; 619-239-2255)
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.