Stuart Ross loves 'Plaid,' but please, hold the tartan

October 11, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Even over the phone, you can be pretty sure Stuart Ross isn't wearing anything plaid -- except maybe a T-shirt with the logo from his maxi-hit mini-musical, "Forever Plaid."

Created, written and directed by Ross, "Forever Plaid" is a salute to the guy groups of the 1950s and 1960s. The four-man revue launches its national tour at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre beginning Tuesday.

Make no mistake about it -- Ross loves the show. He's just tired of tartans.

When "Forever Plaid" finally took off after years of struggle, Ross' friends and fans deluged him with everything imaginable in plaid. "You wouldn't believe what my closet was like. I had to take a storage space. I have 14 pair of plaid boxer shorts," he said from Detroit, where he was directing one of eight "Plaid" productions currently running in the United States.

But Ross' feelings of plaid overkill are strictly sartorial. His enthusiasm for the show has never waned -- possibly because he's only recently let himself believe that "Forever Plaid" is here to stay.

The turning point came in September, when the show celebrated its 1,000th performance at Steve McGraw's off-Broadway cabaret. In honor of the milestone, Ross staged an AIDS benefit titled "The Night of a Thousand Plaids" and starring 35 Plaids from various productions. "I think it took till the 1,000th performance to realize the show might not be a fluke," he admits.

Not that there haven't been other milestones that could have proved reassuring. Gross ticket sales have reached $10.5 million. And, one indication of the cult status of the show is the Frequent Plaid program, which rewards repeat theatergoers, some of whom have come back more than 15 times.

Two of the biggest fans are President and Mrs. Bush, who have seen "Forever Plaid" five times. And the appeal is apparently pTC bi-partisan; during the Democratic National Convention, the New York cast performed outside Lincoln Center, to the delight of delegates, who formed a conga line around the fountain.

The album, released two years ago, is one of the top 20 original cast albums in the history of RCA Records, and negotiations are under way for a follow-up. By now, more than 90 performers have portrayed the Four Plaids -- a fictitious quartet that sings authentic period songs.

However, Ross can't be blamed for taking so long to believe his good fortune. After all, he estimates he accumulated $22,000 in personal debt on this show -- most of it on his Visa card. For one early production in upstate New York, he colored in the plaid on the performers' jackets himself, using Magic Markers. He also glued his own vintage collection of 45s -- the very records that inspired much of the show -- onto the off-Broadway set.

Before that 1989 off-Broadway opening, Ross says there were some 18 different versions of "Forever Plaid." The germ of the show was a four-page sketch he submitted to "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-1980s. Although the sketch was rejected, Ross was undiscouraged. Curious to hear how these classic male harmony songs would sound live, he says, "I got some guys together in my living room," invited a few friends to hear them sing, and liked the results.

Soon afterward, the Four Plaids began performing late-night gigs in New York comedy clubs, while their creator continued to hone the story of their make-believe lives. "It started out just as a reunion," Ross says. There was also a Christmas version called "Plaid Tidings," with the creche and Baby Jesus decked out in plaid; another version, presented in the Virgin Islands, "even had a woman in the show."

Then came the inspiration that brought the concept together. "I realized they had to be dead for me to work it because I didn't want them to be old. I didn't want them to look like they had lost something. I also didn't want the audience to pretend they

were in the '50s," he explains. "We wanted to also say: The music is just as alive now."

So, Ross devised a plot in which the Plaids died in a car accident on the way to their first professional job. The conceit of the show is that their ghosts return to Earth for one night to perform for the first -- and last -- time.

As Ross' investment of time, energy and money indicates, he is a serious fan of such now-faded '50s idols as the Four Aces, the Four Lads, the Crew Cuts and the Four Freshmen. But at age 40, he admits he's a little young for the period. He attributes much of his interest to his brother, Allan, 14 years his senior, who handed over his collection of 45s when he headed off to college in 1956.

An equally important influence was the jukebox in the diner Ross' parents owned in Westchester County, N.Y. "The jukebox guy would give me all the music they weren't playing any more -- Patti Page, Rosie Clooney, J.P. Morgan, the Ames Brothers," he recalls. "There was something very haunting and yet calming and soothing about harmony groups, and all the novelty songs were like kids' songs."

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