When a Show Haunts You

Don Shirley is The Times' theater writer

Stuart Ross has a bright idea for a future round of "Survivor": Make the contestants collaborate on a new musical.

It isn't that Ross and his fellow creators of "The Boswell Sisters," which premiered Saturday at Globe Theatres' Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, are voting their colleagues off the project on a regular basis. He uses the "Survivor" analogy to illustrate the difficulty of their endeavor.

Ross is best known for creating the popular musical "Forever Plaid." But the beginning of his work on "The Boswell Sisters" preceded even "Forever Plaid."

It began more than 20 years ago, as a gleam in the eye of Ross' co-writer, Mark Hampton. Hampton had fallen for the antique recordings of the Boswell Sisters, a singin' and swingin' trio from the South. Well-known in the late '20s and early '30s, they influenced such icons as Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald.

Hampton, 55, had grown up in Canfield, Ohio, in a family that still sang around the piano for entertainment. Not that TV was forbidden--he remembers seeing an appearance on Ed Sullivan's show by Connee Boswell, who continued as a solo act after the sisters broke up in 1936.

Connee, who used a wheelchair, did her TV act with the chair discreetly hidden behind her dress. Hampton said his mother "got a special tone in her voice when she talked about Connee Boswell. We talked about how sad it was that she was in the chair, not about what a great singer she was."

When Hampton was attending Northwestern University outside Chicago, he discovered a Boswell recording on a compilation disc that also featured other female singers from the same era, and he was struck by the contrast. The others "sang high, like ladies. But other than the black blues singers, Connee was one of the first to sing in a chest voice, in a way that was considered unfeminine. I was so drawn to her and her sisters."

Hampton later met Ross, who is nine years younger, in New York. Hampton was part of a comedy act and a club pianist; Ross was a jack of all theatrical trades when he wasn't waiting tables. "He's driven," Hampton said of Ross, "with a million ideas. We'd be lying on the beach, and he kept saying, 'We gotta do a show."'

Hampton reached into his memories and came up with the idea of creating a cabaret act focusing on the music of the Boswell Sisters. Ross had never heard of them, but as soon as he listened to the recordings, he was on board.

In 1979, Ross and Hampton put together a 50-minute cabaret act, recruited three female singers, and presented it for two weekends to nightly audiences of about 30 people--"the original songs with just a little connective tissue," Hampton said.

In the process of putting together the show, they enlisted the aid of the one remaining Boswell sister, Helvetia, nicknamed Vet. Even though she had long ago retired to a farm near Peekskill, N.Y., "on the day we met, she wore a full-length mink coat and a red turban," Hampton recalled. "She smoked Camels, and she spoke with a New Orleans twinkle. She had the patina of big time. She was a landmark, even if she hadn't been designated as a landmark lately."

As she talked about the old days, "she had all the elegance and hairpin turns that their music did," Hampton said.

Hampton and Ross celebrated Vet's birthday with a big cake and screenings of old film clips, which were "so evocative. It wasn't just a series of snappy tunes. There was a soulfulness to their relationship and their music. There was a melancholy."

Even though they kept in touch with Vet until she died in 1988, she stopped short of saying anything truly juicy about the relationship of the three sisters. "Like a good old Southern lady, she never revealed family secrets," Ross said. However, "we heard a whole bunch of stories" from others who had known the Boswells.

Ross and Hampton weren't, at that time, planning to make much use out of the family stories in their little cabaret act. But the act was growing.

A few months after the initial presentation, a couple of producers took it to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. In 1981, this show moved to off-Broadway and played for a month.

Reviews were mixed. The team "didn't know how to sell it," Hampton said, and perhaps the title--"The Heebie Jeebies"--had something to do with that. The show was named after a Boswell Sisters song, "the first one that I heard," Ross said. "But it was a confusing title. It recalled different forms of being antsy or scared or down."

While he was working on "The Heebie Jeebies," Ross took a break one day and listened to a Four Aces recording of "Three Coins in the Fountain." He wondered what a live show that used that kind of music would be like. Soon enough, much of America would find out in his "Forever Plaid."

Introduced to Southern California at the Old Globe, "Forever Plaid" put Ross "in a great position to be a purveyor of another small musical," Hampton said.

Meanwhile, Hampton attained a more measured success with "Full Gallop," a solo show about Diana Vreeland that he co-wrote and that premiered at the Old Globe. So it was an easy decision for the two of them to return to what was now called "The Boswell Sisters"--and to consider doing it at Globe Theatres, where--in Hampton's words--"they knew we weren't nut balls."

"Nothing haunts you artistically as much as something you didn't get quite right," Hampton said. With "The Heebie Jeebies," he said, "we didn't have much to offer other than the fact that we were presenting the music live. We didn't have the chops, the life experience." Now, he believes, they have what it takes to dig deeper.

They took the revised show to a workshop at the O'Neill Center in Connecticut in 1996 and got "way closer" to what they wanted, Hampton said. Two years later, an opportunity arose to do another cabaret version at the Rainbow Room in New York, and the success there led to more such offers. "We could have had a cottage industry booking it in clubs," Hampton said, but they stuck to the plan to develop a book musical. Jack O'Brien, the Globe's artistic director, was receptive.

When the show was announced last fall, it was planned "to be much more presentational," Ross said. Set in the present, it was about three performers trying to do a show about the Boswell Sisters. "It got very complicated."

Early this year, the duo returned to an earlier story framework, which has the Boswells reuniting in the post-World War II era. "Each comes in with a different attitude," Hampton said. "They need to talk about their breakup." Even with the framework settled, however, at least three-fourths of the script has been changed in the last eight weeks, Ross said.

Ross does most of the structural work and directs, while Hampton fills in many of the details. "Nobody believes how hard it is to build a script around existing songs," Ross said. "You can't rely on the lyrics to tell the story," although the songs are supposed to reflect the subtext of what's going on in the story.

Agreed Hampton: "These are not songs with dramatic arcs. This is not Sondheim." Ross, Hampton said, is very good "at finding maximum variety in their sound, so that the audience doesn't hear the same thing over and over."

Both men praised the cast's role during this process, but Hampton acknowledged that the cast members look younger than the Boswells did at this time in their lives. For this reason, "we're not emphasizing the specific time when it takes place."

"I would never be doing this if Vet were still living," considering her sensitivity to decorum, Hampton said. He volunteered that their script is "unfettered by the facts. But sometimes in telling a story, you're more truthful emotionally if you don't tell the facts."

Dramatically, "The Boswell Sisters" is more challenging than "Forever Plaid," for the women are in conflict with each other, while the "Plaid" boys were primarily in conflict with their own fears, Ross said. The new show has elements of Southern gothic, Beth Henley, Chekhov and "Designing Women," he quipped. Musically, it's also more difficult than "Plaid." "There is no real break for any of the three. This is like a one-person performance by three people."

Musical director Brad Ellis has distributed the harmonic lines in an intricate pattern that requires each singer to switch often from top to middle to bottom, Hampton said. "The Boswells did it that way instinctively. Here the harmony is like couture--you're building the dress on the woman."

Ross isn't expecting another "Forever Plaid." The new show "doesn't have the same laughs. And it's a much more lost period of music. Not that many people remember it."

Hampton said he was nervous when they decided to move forward, worrying that they were "beating a dead horse." When they started work in San Diego earlier this year, he still wasn't satisfied with the script.

But after more weeks of work, "I love it. Now you can hear what we hear in the music. That's what I always wanted."


"THE BOSWELL SISTERS," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Sept. 1. Prices: $25-$50. Phone: (619) 239-2255.

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