SAN DIEGO — Sparky, Smudge, Jinx and Frankie are Forever Plaid, four "good guys" who sing '50s tunes in velvety, four-part harmony. New York playwright Stuart Ross created the young innocents, and then he killed them off.
They were about to embarrass themselves.
They were about to sing "Three Coins in a Fountain" in plaid tuxedos for their first gig. In 1964.
"It was a blessing they didn't suffer that humiliation," Ross joked last week at the Old Globe Theatre, where his hit musical "Forever Plaid" will open July 18. The comedy is now running off-Broadway, in St. Louis and in Washington.
Ross is in San Diego to direct the West Coast premiere. He talked about the Plaids and what inspired him to base a show on "crew-cut music."
"When my older brother left for college in 1956, when I was just turning 4, he left me all his 45s--of Perry Como, the Four Lads, the Four Aces, Four Freshmen, Peggy Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford. . . . On top of that, my parents owned a diner. They couldn't afford a baby-sitter, so I'd stay in the diner, and the jukebox guy would come and give me all the records nobody was playing anymore.
"Rock 'n' roll was just coming in, so I got all these Kay Starr records . . . and I had the Four Lads singing 'Standing on the Corner Watching All the Girls Go By.' Truly, when left alone, that's what I would play. . . .
"So, a while ago, when I was doing another show, I looked at these album covers and wondered, what's the mind behind these really clean-cut, square-looking guys, singing all about love. You just know they never had a clue as to what that was. All they cared about was singing, creating romance, making people happy. That's what attracted me. Why would these guys do that? That's what started this show."
Ross joined talents with James Raitt--cousin of singer John Raitt, Bonnie Raitt's father--to create the musical.
"James has done a brilliant work on the arrangements, expanding them quite a bit," Ross said. When members of the original singing groups saw the show in New York, "they were floored," he said. The Four Aces, for example, thought the music was even better than their own, according to Ross.
"They were amazed that we were able to put (their music) into a theatrical context and make it build theatrically, and make them laugh at the same time.
"Most of those guys never did choreography, though they said they always wanted to," Ross said. "They would just stand there and do a couple of moves. But, on their album covers, it looked like they did tons of it. So I basically got inspired by the album covers, and that's where the comedy comes in, in the staging."
In retrospect, the songs are also amusing. "Lady of Spain," "Day-O," "Papa Loves Mambo," "Shangri-La," "Sixteen Tons" are five of 28 songs included in "Forever Plaid." Ross believes he's able to have fun with the music because it was popular before his time. Otherwise, he would have hated it or, like his brother, "been totally reverential toward it."
"I don't think of this (show) as a spoof or parody," Ross said. "We take it sincerely, earnestly, but with a sense of humor.
"What would happen if four guys, who were misfits in society, were left alone in their basements to do their own choreography and their own arrangements?" he asked. There's an innocence to that. It's pretty funny, but it pokes fun at how naive we all were--in, I hope, a loving way."
He recounted a musical number in which the Plaids wear sombreros for a Caribbean song. "They get a little confused," he said, laughing.
Ross spoke of what was, in his view, an American period of plenty, from 1954 to 1964, when the mentality was to create avocado and turquoise refrigerators--"to make people want something they don't need."
"Everybody got caught up in the idea that they should be spending, they should really be successful, which got everybody frustrated. . . . The only time they would settle down, the only time they wouldn't fight, was during 'Ed Sullivan' or 'The Milton Berle Show.' I don't mean rich people. They were probably drinking. I mean lower-middle-class and middle-class people who were trying to live up to this American Dream and were just exhausted from it. At least that's my perspective, from my family."
Ross' family lived on a farm near Brewster, N.Y., "near where Marlo 'That Girl'--where Ann Marie was from," he quipped.
"I remember going into this kid's basement, you know, the white people with the Cutty Sark bottles and all those preppy things, who served baloney sandwiches on white bread for lunch, and had plaid carpet and plaid ice buckets--seriously! We never had that. I was amazed."
Ross also remembers Bonnie Plaid Stamps, an incentive program, like Green Stamps, for grocery shoppers to fill up stamp books, then go to the Plaid Redemption Center to collect a premium. He still has a table radio he got from Plaid Land.