By Don Leavitt
From Insights, 2004
Ah, boy bands. Take a group of earnest teens with dreams of celebrity, mix equal portions of unrequited romance and adolescent angst and set it to music. Teach the boys to dance and girls everywhere will be screaming.
Today’s boy band is all about hip-hop choreography, movie star looks and lyrics full of anxious love and raging hormones. Well, the sound has changed but the message is still the same. Ask anyone over the age of fifty about boy bands, and they’ll likely tell you about a bygone era when the bands wore identical outfits, performed simple dance moves and sang tight, heartbreaking harmonies about anxious love and raging hormones.
The guys in Forever Plaid are just this sort of group—four young men in matching outfits singing harmony in a time when boy bands like the Four Aces and the Hi-Los were the main attraction at the high school prom. As a group, the Plaids embody the sound of four-part male harmony that was a staple of the late fifties; as a play, Forever Plaid memorializes the death of a sound at the hands of rock and roll, and celebrates the pursuit of dreams despite insurmountable odds.
Forever Plaid made its off-Broadway debut in 1990 and surprised everyone by playing for more than four years on New York’s Upper West Side. Within two years of its debut, Forever Plaid was a favorite of amateur and professional theatre companies from Los Angeles to Boston. Written by Stuart Ross, Forever Plaid is both a tribute and a send-up, honoring all-American wholesomeness while poking fun at a musical style that owes its demise to the invasion of a new kind of boy band—the Beatles.
There’s no shortage of symbolism here. The story behind Forever Plaid hinges on the fact that the Beatles have killed the Plaids, literally, and the real story takes place before the play even begins: the Plaids are Sparky, Smudge, Jinx and Frankie, four friends who met in their high school’s audio-visual club and who share a love of singing. They form their own group and rehearse in a basement while dreaming of the fame and fortune enjoyed by the boy bands they idolize.
The Plaids slowly make a name for themselves as most start-up bands do—by performing at family parties, store openings and proms. They finally get their big break, an invitation to hold their first public concert at the Fusil-Lounge, a cocktail bar at the airport Hilton. On February 9, 1964, the boys are on the way to pick up their custom-made plaid tuxedos. Their ’54 Mercury convertible is broadsided by a bus filled with Catholic schoolgirls on their way to the Ed Sullivan show, where the Beatles are about to make their U.S. television debut. The Forever Plaids are killed instantly, without getting their plaid tuxedos or ever realizing their dream.
This is where Forever Plaid begins. Ross writes, “Through the powers of harmony and the expanding holes in the Ozone Layer . . . [the Plaids] have been allowed to come back to perform the show they never got to do in life.” For one night only, the boys get the chance to prove for all time that they really were as good as they imagined. As the four dead Plaids slowly take the stage, one says, “Holy Canoli! We’re finally back on earth!” Another says, “We could make the biggest comeback since Lazarus!”
In a way, this is exactly what the Plaids are doing—making the ultimate comeback. That’s because Forever Plaid’s back story is a fairly accurate description of what happened to popular music during the early sixties. By the end of the fifties, America’s taste in music was changing. Four-part harmony groups had to compete with rock and roll, which was slowly taking over the radio waves, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Elvis Presley. By the start of the sixties, rock and roll was firmly in place as the favorite music of America’s youth, and four-part harmony boy bands were becoming increasingly less popular. Of course, some of the best known harmony groups survived, but by 1964 it was almost impossible for a start-up group like the Plaids to make it big. Recording companies and radio stations just weren’t interested in their sound anymore.
The British invasion nailed the lid on the four-part boy bands’ coffin. When the Beatles made that historic debut on Ed Sullivan, they initiated a whole new kind of boy band, one based on rock and roll with quick tempos and amplified instruments. The Beatles and other boy bands from the sixties used four-part harmony in their music, but the sound was completely different from the mellow, tight harmonies of fifties groups like the Four Freshmen or the Crew Cuts. Before the end of the decade, rock and roll would rule and songs like “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Heart and Soul” would be labeled musical nostalgia.
As a result, this performance really is a once in an after-lifetime opportunity for the Plaids. Forever Plaid is not only a chance to perform the music they love; it is also a chance to hit a high that most likely would have eluded them in life. As they make their way through the hits of their generation, the Plaids get to pretend the Beatles never happened, and the audience gets to reminisce about a time when parents didn’t need to worry about the music their kids were listening to.
Forever Plaid is about dreams coming true, about reaching one’s potential and fulfilling one’s destiny. As the play progresses, we watch the Plaids transform from bumbling spirit-geeks to confident superstars. Of course, it is not an easy journey. First, each Plaid suffers from an almost debilitating flaw that must be overcome before true stardom may be achieved. Frankie, the group’s heartthrob, hyperventilates on stage; Sparky, the mischievous party boy, develops a speech impediment when he’s nervous; Jinx is prone to nosebleeds; while Smudge suffers from anxiety-induced indigestion.
Second, the boys admit they know very little about love or romance, because they were too busy in life chasing their dream to experience the very things they’ve been singing about. But they know what plaid stands for, telling the audience that the Scottish material represents home and family. What they lack in experience, they more than make up for in earnestness. At the end of the play, when an usher brings a big box on stage and the boys open it to find their plaid tuxedos, we understand that the Plaids have earned their wings, so to speak. Smudge announces he doesn’t want to go back, saying, “Maybe if we don’t finish the show, we can pick up where we left off.” But a band mate wisely responds, “It’s time to go. We touched our dream . . . let’s sing the last song and go like Plaids.”
The finale ends, the curtain falls, and the audience cheers, because nostalgia, like plaid, is forever.