Songs about spelling are nothing new.
Anybody even remotely familiar with “Sesame Street”(or its short-lived, psychedelic cousin “The Electric Company”) knows that. But songs about spellers? That’s something altogether different. Who wants to hear a bunch of kids vocalizing the proper spelling of “acouchi”?
Call “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” the Little Musical that Roared.
“Les Mis” has its barricades, “Phantom of the Opera” its chandelier. “Putnam” has the correct usage of “elanguescence,” “syzygy” and “cystitus.”
But William Finn (score) and Rachel Sheinkin’s (book) tale of academic overachievers is about far more than the mystery of obscure words. What started as a small, scrappy way-off Broadway workshop became a critically and commercially lauded Tony winner.
Rooted in the art of improvisation and rich with characters with an intense allegiance to the dictionary, “Spelling Bee” is first and foremost a tale of triumphing over self-doubt. You might start out laughing at the pre-pubescent brainiacs vying for the highly coveted title of Bee Champion, but you’ll end up rooting for them — and relating to their struggle to overcome the pitfalls of neglectful parents, bullying, and the bodily functions that make puberty such a cataclysmically confusing time.
“Yeah, it’s basically about a spelling bee,” says Jordan DeLeon, who plays Chip, the Bee’s defending champ. “But it’s really about coming into your own identity. Which is why I think it speaks to strongly to people. Everything these kids go through on stage is something everyone in the audience has gone through. It captures that weird, adolescent phase when you’re not a kid any more but you’re not quite an adult and you don’t really know who you are. “
“Everyone on stage has such a poignant internal struggle,” adds Frances Limoncelli, who plays Rona Lisa Peretti, the preternaturally cheerful moderator of the bee and a past champion whose memories of her winning word still make her swell with pride, “My hope is that the audience will see themselves in at least one of the characters on stage.”
In addition to Chip and Rona, those characters include the defiantly dorky outcast William Barfee (who relies on a “magic foot” to help him spell), the forlorn Olive Ostrovsky (who pines for a long-absent mother and a distant father), the precocious Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (desperate not to disappoint her overbearing gay dads), the goofy Leaf Coneybear (labeled “not that smart” by his own parents), and the overachiever Marcy Park (who gets a hilarious song about living up to the expectations of parents who deem anything less than an “A” an abject failure).
Make no mistake: While the actors on stage are playing youngsters, “Spelling Bee” is decidedly not a children’s show.
“This show would be totally uncomfortable if we had actual kids playing the kids,” says Calcagno, “There’s a lot of blue humor, a lot of swearing. It’s so important that you find adult actors who can play very young. It would be totally inappropriate to have young children saying these lines.”
Case in point: The song M. U. E., a tune that explicitly probes the terror and mortification that come with an ill-timed erection.
“It’s not vulgar, it’s absolutely truthful,” says DeLeon, who probes the perils of having uncontrollable reproductive parts in M. U. E. “There isn’t a man in the audience who won’t relate to this song. If they say they can’t, they’re lying.”
Calcagno first saw “Spelling Bee” in a community theater production several years ago. He was instantly smitten with the show.
“I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it,” he recalls, “But I found myself really connecting to the characters. You start out laughing at them but you end up cheering for them. All their struggles to fit are so universal. We’ve all been there, facing rejection, trying to figure out who we really are.”
Calcagno hopes audiences see themselves and their own struggles in the intense world of the Putnam Spelling Bee. “You’re never really alone, that’s what I hope audiences take from the show,” he said. “Also, that it’s OK to be your weird self. Don’t try to fit into somebody else’s mold.”