The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a one act musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally-quirky grown-ups. The spellers learn that winning isn't everything.
The 2005 Broadway production, directed by James Lapine, has earned good reviews and box-office success and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book. The show has spawned various other productions in the U.S., a national tour with performances two in Canada and Australian productions.
An unusual aspect of the show is that three or four real audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. During the 2005 Tony Awards, former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton competed. Another amusing aspect of the show is that the official pronouncer provides ridiculous usage examples when asked to use words in a sentence. For instance, for the word "palaestra," he says, "Euripides said, 'What happens at the palaestra stays at the palaestra.' At some shows, adult-only audiences (over age 16) are invited for "Parent-Teacher Conferences," also known as "adult night at the Bee." These performances are peppered with sexual references and profanity inspired by R-rated ad-libs made during rehearsals.
Spelling Bee, together with The Drowsy Chaperone, Xanadu, [title of show] and others, is part of a Broadway trend to present musicals uninterrupted by an intermission, with a relatively small cast and short running time of less than two hours.
The cast album was released on May 31st, 2005 and is available off of Ghostlight Records, an imprint of Sh-K-Boom Records.
Background and original production
The musical was based upon C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,
an original improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman and performed by The Farm
, a New-York-based improvisational comedy troupe. Sarah Saltzberg, Wendy Wasserstein
's weekend nanny, was in the original production, and Wasserstein recommended that Finn see the show. Finn brought Shenkin on board, and they worked together with Feldman to transform the improv show into a scripted full-length musical.
Spelling Bee was workshopped and developed at the Barrington Stage Company (BSC) - Julianne Boyd, Artistic Director - in the Massachusetts Berkshires in two different stages. In February of 2004, a workshop was done in which a first act, and parts of a second act were created - this stage of the process was directed by Michael Barakiva and Feldman. The script was fleshed out and the show was given a fuller production in July 2004 directed by Feldman and Michael Unger. Dan Knechtges choreographed the workshop and summer productions and the Broadway production. Dana Harrel produced both productions as the Producer of Stage II at BSC. A few cast members, Dan Fogler, Jay Reiss, and Sarah Saltzberg remained from C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E. Robb Sapp (later replaced by Jose Llana when Sapp moved on to Wicked), Dashiell Eaves (replaced by Derrick Baskin), Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Celia Keenan-Bolger (joined as Olive Ostrovsky in the summer), Lisa Howard, and Deborah Craig were added to the cast, and a full script was created. The musical moved Off-Broadway to the Second Stage Theatre on January 11, 2005, where it enjoyed critical and box-office success.
Spelling Bee moved to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre on April 15 2005. It closed on January 20, 2008 after 1,136 performances.
The director is James Lapine and the choreographer is Dan Knechtges. The show won Tony Awards for Best Book (Rachel Sheinkin) and Best Featured Actor (Dan Fogler). The original Broadway cast was as follows:
Notable replacements have included Barrett Foa and Stanley Bahorek as Leaf, Greta Lee as Marcy, Jenni Barber as Olive, Sara Inbar as Logainne, Jennifer Simard as Rona, Jessica-Snow Wilson as Olive, Aaron J. Albano as Chip, and Mo Rocca and Darrell Hammond as Mr. Panch.
The first performance in-the-round was at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Massachusetts. This performance was considered successful and the circular theater adds a new dimension to an already amusing musical.
- Rona Lisa Peretti: The #1 Realtor in Putnam County, a former Putnam County Spelling Bee Champ and returning moderator. She's a sweet woman who loves children but can be very stern when it comes to dealing with Principal Panch, who has feelings for her that she most likely doesn't return. It's implied that she sees much of herself in Olive Ostrovsky. Her favorite moment of the Bee is the minutes before it starts, when all the children are filled with the joy of competition, before they begin to resent each other. She later says/sings that she likes how everyone has an equal chance of winning, citing as an example that last year's winner can be this year's loser and vice versa. Another favorite moment is when the last winners go head to head for the top spot because it is so suspenseful and filled with hope. Ms. Peretti herself won the 3rd spelling bee by spelling syzygy, which she recounts at the very beginning of the opening number.
- Vice Principal Douglas Panch:: After five years' absence from the Bee, Panch returns as judge. There was an "incident" at the 20th annual Bee, but he claims to be in "a better place" now, thanks to a high-fiber diet and Jungian analysis. He is infatuated with Rona Lisa Peretti, but she does not return his affections.
- Mitch Mahoney: The Official Comfort Counselor. An ex-con, Mitch is performing his community service with the Bee, and hands out juice boxes to losing students.
- Olive Ostrovsky: A young newcomer to competitive spelling. Her mother is in an ashram in India, and her father is working late, as usual, but he is trying to come at some time during the bee. She made friends with her dictionary at a very young age, helping her make it to the competition.
- William Barfée: A Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year, he was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. His famous “Magic Foot” method of spelling has boosted him to spelling glory, even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality. He has an often mispronounced last name: it's Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee ("there's an accent aigu," he explains with some hostility). He develops a crush on Olive. It is implied that his one-sided crush on Olive mirrors the one-sided crush Principal Panch has on Ms. Peretti.
- Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre: Logainne is the youngest and most politically aware speller, often making comments about current political figures, with two overbearing gay men as parents. She is a bit of a neat-freak, speaks with a lisp, and will be back next year.
- Marcy Park: A recent transfer from Virginia, Marcy placed 9th in last year’s nationals. She speaks six languages, is a member of all-American hockey, a championship rugby player, plays Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, sleeps only three hours a night, hides in the bathroom cabinet, and is getting very tired of always winning. She is the poster child for the Over-Achieving Asian, and attends a Catholic school called "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows." She is also not allowed to cry.
- Leaf Coneybear: The second runner-up in his district, Leaf gets into the competition on a lark: the winner and first runner-up had to go to the first runner-up's Bat Mitzvah. Leaf comes from a large family of former hippies and makes his own clothes. He spells words correctly while in a trance. In his song, "I'm Not That Smart", he sings that his family thinks he is "not that smart" but insinuates that he is merely easily distracted. Most of the words he is assigned are South American rodents with amusing names.
- Chip Tolentino ("Tripp Barrington" in the original workshop, "Isaac 'Chip' Berkowitz" in the Chicago production): A boy scout and champion of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, he returns to defend his title, but he finds puberty hitting at an inopportune moment.
- Three or four spellers from the audience: Audience members are encouraged to sign up to participate before the show, and several are chosen to spell words on stage. In touring productions, local celebrities are sometimes selected.Minor characters (the cast doubles these)
- Carl Grubenierre: One of Schwartzandgrubenierre’s dads, he’s set on his heart on his little girl winning the bee, no matter what he has to do, including sabotaging William’s foot. Played by the actor who plays Leaf.
- Dan Schwartz: Schwartzandgrubenierre’s other dad, he’s slightly less insane than Carl but still intent on his daughter winning the bee. Played by the actor who plays Mitch.
- Leaf’s Mom: Overprotective and doubtful of her son’s abilities to stand up to the competition. Played by the actress who plays Logainne.
- Leaf’s siblings, Marigold, Brooke, Pinecone, Landscape, Raisin, and Paul: Not very confident of Leaf’s abilities. Played by the actors who play Olive, Marcy, Chip and the volunteer spellers.
- Olive’s Mom and Dad: She’s in India, he’s working late, but they appear in Olive’s imagination to encourage her and tell her they love her. Played by the actors who play Miss Peretti and Mitch.
- Jesus: Appears to Marcy in a moment of crisis. Played by the actor who plays Chip. When this actor is Asian (as he has been in the Boston, New York and San Francisco productions), a line to that effect is added.
- Peggy Jenkins: Logainne's birth mother. Only mentioned (in "Woe is Me"). She lives in a trailer in "Kansas, Missouri"; she has some contact with Logainne and her two dads. She is mentioned by Carl as Logainne's "B.M."
production began performances on March 28
at the Drury Lane Theatre – Water Tower Place. The National Tour began in Baltimore, Maryland
at the Hippodrome Theatre on September 19
and, as of June 2007
, has visited over 30 cities across the U.S.
There were two additional US sit-down productions in San Francisco and Boston. The San Francisco production opened on March 1, 2006 at the Post Street Theatre and closed on September 3, 2006. The Boston production opened at the Wilbur Theatre on September 26, 2006 and ran until December 31, 2006. The majority of the San Francisco cast opened in Boston.
The first production outside the United States was at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Melbourne, Australia in January 2006. It starred Marina Prior as Ms. Peretti, David Campbell as Chip, and Magda Szubanski as William.
The Melbourne Theatre Company production was presented by the Sydney Theatre Company in Sydney, Australia in 2007, and again starred Prior and Szubanski, now joined by Lisa McCune as Olive. The production opened on June 11, 2007 and ran until August, 2007 after several extensions.
From May 24 to June 17, 2007, the original Broadway cast reunited for a limited four-week run at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles.
In 2007, the first translated production opened in Seoul, South Korea, with all of the music and dialogue in Korean, but the words that were spelled were in English.
A second national tour of the Bee will show through the United States and Canada 2008-2009. This production will be produced by Phoenix Entertainment.
In September 2008, a German-language adaptation premiered as Der 25. Pattenser Buchstabierwettbewerb.
In October 2008, Oscar theatre company
In November 2008, Auckland Theatre Company will stage the first professional production of the show in New Zealand.
In 2009, a production will arrive in the Philippines. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Manila
The Spelling Bee is returning to Barrington Stage Company, where it originated, this summer. It runs from June 15th-July 21st. This will be the first regional production in the United States. The production includes several cast members from the touring company and is a co-production with North Shore Theatre.
(Songs are not listed in the Playbill since with audience members on stage, the timing of the "Goodbye" songs varies with each show.)
- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – Company
- Spelling Rules/My Favorite Moment of the Bee – Ms. Peretti and Company
- My Friend, the Dictionary – Olive and Company
- First Goodbye – Mr. Panch and spellers
- Pandemonium – Mr. Panch, spellers and Mitch
- I'm Not That Smart – Leaf, spellers and Mr. Panch
- Second Goodbye – Panch and spellers
- Magic Foot – William, Ms. Peretti and Company
- Pandemonium (Reprise)/My Favorite Moment of the Bee (Reprise) – Ms. Peretti and Company
- Why We Like Spelling – Leaf and spellers (This song is not in the show, but is used during promotional performances.)
- Prayer of the Comfort Counselor – Mitch, Mr. Panch and spellers
- My Unfortunate Erection (Chip's Lament) – Chip
- Woe Is Me – Logainne, Carl, Dan and Company
- I'm Not That Smart (Reprise) – Leaf
- I Speak Six Languages – Marcy, Ms. Peretti and girls
- The I Love You Song – Olive, her parents, and Mr. Panch
- Woe Is Me (Reprise) – Logainne, William and Olive
- My Favorite Moment of the Bee (Reprise)/Second – Ms. Peretti, Mr. Panch, William, Olive and Company
- Finale – Ms. Peretti and Company
- The Last Goodbye – Company
The original Broadway cast recording was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Audience interaction and words used
About a half hour before the show begins, audience members in the lobby are given the chance to sign up to participate in the show as "spellers." The registration form asks for name, occupation, hobbies, description of clothing, spelling ability, and age range. Interviewers look for people with no acting experience, unique names, traits and backgrounds. For example, when a person named "Blayze O'Brien" was chosen as a participant, the characters made marijuana-related jokes when it was his turn to spell.
The audience participants are taken backstage prior to the show and are shown where to stand when called from the audience and given instruction about what to do when called upon to spell. They are asked to request a definition of each word and its usage in a sentence, and to attempt to spell each word rather than giving up. During the performance, the actors sitting next to the audience participants periodically whisper hints about when to stand, sit, move in "slow motion," "freeze" or hang on because the seating platform unit is about to spin.
Ms. Peretti calls the spellers to the stage at the beginning of the show, and they are given badges to wear that say "Finalist." As the show proceeds, each one is eliminated with successively more difficult words. The final audience participant to be eliminated is serenaded by Mitch ("Prayer of the Comfort Counselor") on-stage. Mitch also gives each eliminated finalist (both audience members and regular characters) a juice box and a hug.
Katharine Close, the 2006 winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, was invited to be a contestant at a performance of the show. She was the last speller from the audience to be eliminated and survived 14 rounds.
In addition, the musical treats the audience members as if they were the audience at the fictitious spelling bee. For example, the characters single out audience members as their "family" members. For example, William periodically refers to an age-appropriate woman near the stage as "mom." Similarly, Chip is distracted by an attractive female audience member (or male in the adults-only version), contributing to a misspelling. The characters also frequently walk through the auditorium among the audience during the show, sometimes integrating the audience into the show and occasionally dropping the "fourth wall."Words used
Examples of words spelled by characters in performances of Spelling Bee include Aboulia, Astrobleme, Cat, Coitus interruptus (adult show), Dinosaur, Ewes, Hasenpfeffer, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, Origami (adult show), and Weltanschauung. Examples of words spelled by the audience volunteers include: Apoop, Cenacle, Cow, Dengue (which Al Sharpton missed at the Tonys), Elephant, Hemidemisemiquaver, Homunculus, Kinnikinick, Jihad, Mexicans, Ouabain, Palaestra, and Zuuzuu. Julie Andrews missed "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" when she was a guest speller on "KIDS night on Broadway, 2007.
"Catarjunes" is a word made up for the show, defined as "an old Nantucket whaling term; its only known use was in a captain's log entry which reads, 'The time of judgment is upon us; the leviathan has come—catarjunes!'" Another such fictional word is "Flugaloom" ("Come hither, Heidi. Flugaloom! Flugaloom! Flugaloom!"); they are used by the cast to either prolong an audience member's stay in the competition (to mock surprise from the cast [see below]), or to ensure their elimination so the action can proceed. National Spelling Bee Champion Katharine "Kerry" Close, after surviving 14 rounds, was given "Catarjunes" to end her participation. Similarly, Xerophthalmiology is an extension of an actual word that is also used to ensure an audience member's elimination, although at times it has been correctly spelled unexpectedly. Kinky Friedman misspelled this word during a 2007 performance in San Antonio. Washington, D.C. weatherman Doug Hill misspelled "xerophthalmiology" after spelling "flugaloom" correctly on November 1 2007.
Theatre World Awards
Drama Desk Awards
- Outstanding New Musical (Nominee)
- Outstanding Book of a Musical (Winner)
- Outstanding Director of a Musical (James Lapine, Winner)
- Outstanding Lyrics (nominee)
- Outstanding Music (nominee)
- Outstanding Ensemble Performance (Winner)