New musical brings the '60s (and more) back to life

They come three decades from the past-four white guys in plaid jackets singing good ole four-part harmony. It was 1964 when the Plaids, a goody-goody-guy group, unfortunately collided with a bus full of Catholic schoolgirls en route to a gig at the local airport’s Fuselounge; none of the Plaids — Sparky, Jinx, Smudge, and Frankie — survived. And yet, through some divine ordinance, here they are in front of us in 1992, awarded one more chance to wow an audience with their boss harmonies, impeccably choreographed ripple hand movements on ”Three Coins in the Fountain,” a manic three-minute re-creation of an Ed Sullivan Show, and a heartfelt tribute to their hero, Perry Como, crooned to a cardigan sweater allegedly worn by the master himself.

Here, actually, is Forever Plaid, a gonzo, affectionate parody of 1950s and ’60s guy groups, that opened Off Broadway two years ago and has now cropped up in a dozen cities across the country and in Tokyo. President Bush invited the Washington, D.C., cast to the White House and Kennebunkport last summer, and the New York City troupe played the Democratic National Convention by singing ”Matilda” to a massive conga line of delegates at a Lincoln Center bash. The Beverly Hills cast will harmonize on The Tonight Show this month.

Forever Plaid is about the last thing you’d expect from its creator- producer-director, 40-year-old Stuart Ross. In his pre-Plaid days, Ross directed avant-garde works around New York City, including a very rude 1976 quasi ballet about Vince Lombardi, told from the point of view of a toilet. But he has doo-wop in his soul. His parents owned a diner with a jukebox in suburban New York and gave him all the discarded 45’s. In 1985 Ross exhumed his treasured Four Aces album, Look For Love, from a closet. ”I was going, ‘I wonder what this would sound like live,”’ he recalls, and before you could say ooo-bop-shabam, Forever Plaid was born

The musical, with fresh arrangements by James Raitt (Bonnie’s cousin), has grossed $10 million to date, and negotiations are under way to parlay the show into a Saturday morning cartoon and a movie. ”I think it could be a really wonderful ’50s version of Wayne’s World,” Ross says. The merchandising has already begun: an original cast album, dolls, T-shirts, caps, varsity jackets, buttons, and an upcoming Christmas album, Plaid Tidings.

”I want to see kids with plaid lunch boxes singing ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’ on schoolbuses, thinking it’s hip,” says Ross, confident that this is not an impossible dream. ”Remember Ed Grimley?”