The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical comedy centring around a fictional spelling bee in a geographically ambiguous Putnam County. It was work shopped, developed and performed with the Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires in 2005 before to its off-Broadway run at the Second Stage Theatre before transferring to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. It was directed by James Lapine, written by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book/script) and produced by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman and Patrick Catullo. This version was nominated for six Tony Awards, and won two, including best book (a category it also won a Drama Desk Award for). Below is a table showing all the awards the musical has been nominated for or awarded:
The musical opened in 2005 as the version I listed above. Below is a table of the cast for this production.
The musical then played in Melbourne, Australia. It opened in January 2006 at the Playhouse Arts Centre there, but only ran for approximately a month. Here is the table again, with this production’s cast included:
Following this in 2006, the musical began several runs in America, starting in San Francisco at the Post Street Theatre opening in March and closing in September. Here is the repeated table with the San Francisco cast added:
The musical premiered for the first time in the UK in London at the Donmar Warehouse in February of 2011, directed by Jamie Lloyd. It ran for less than 2 months, from February 11th till April 2nd. Here is the table with the London cast added:
The most recent run of the show was in Israel, with a series of performances in September of 2017 at the Beit Yad leBanim theatre in Tel Aviv. This was not the first foreign transfer (and translation) of the show, this was in Seoul, South Korea in 2008. Here is the table with the Israel cast added:
Conclusively, I think it is interesting to observe the diversity of the cast, and how the template of the characters can be altered as long as the comedy is sustained. Although our cast does not completely fit the casting archetypes (for example, Perry whom plays Barfee is not overweight), we have been developing strong and comedic characters which suffice for entertainment – so the stereotypical aesthetic of the show is not needed (especially because local audiences will most likely not notice, as the show is American and barely known in the UK).
The musical is very unique in the sense of its comedy and the conventions used for this. Firstly, the performance uses four actual audience-volunteer spellers, for example, at the 2005 Tony Awards performance, former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton made a cameo as a volunteer. Here is a recording of the sequence (a medley, similar to the style of our flash-mob sequence, but uses script more than song):
^I admire the way the cast walked Sharpton back to his seat, and I think the principles should do so in our production as well; to pro-long the embarrassment of the audience volunteer and thus drive as much humour from the event as possible.
Below are some of the author’s (Rachel Sheinkin) notes on choosing volunteer spellers:
The musical also relies heavily on improvisation, and a lot of it is built around ad-lib; a theatrical term taken from the Latin phrase ‘ad libitum’ meaning “at one’s pleasure”. The convention is commonly used in Pantomime, especially with the use of audience interaction as well. I recently watched a small amateur production of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’; this used a very large amount of ad-lib and was very successful in drawing comedy from doing so. The actors had to be thinking on their feet, alive and energetic in order for their brains to be in gear to deliver such comedy, as it was commonly drawn from the ever-changing environment, not at all dissimilar to the Spelling Bee.
The character of Vice Principal Panch (or the announcer) is commonly played by a stand-up comedian. They provide spoken gags for when an audience member gets up to spell (describing the person in usually an embarrassing but hilarious way) and for the definition of words and their use in sentences. In our production, both Panch and Rona take on this role. In rehearsals we have used members of the cast as well as level two students to act as audience volunteers so Kira and Rachael (who play Rona and Panch) have subjects to practise with. Since the two actresses are not overly experienced in comedy, the practise of creating jokes and delivering on the spot frequently, with multiple different subjects, helped them become familiar with doing so.
Here are some extra notes from the author on the shape of the show and how improvisation influences this:
The notes above also mention the character of Schwarzy having a section of her own ad-libbing. This refers to a monologue the character performs in a scene; the context being her complaining about the state of the spelling bee, referencing current political news as she does so (which fits her social-justice-inclined character). The book’s ‘APPENDIX’ includes suggested examples of this, as shown below:
The show has been widely successful with its comedic delivery in the past.
A famous article by Charles Isherwood in the ‘New York Times Critic’s Picks’ states that (quoted) “Most crucially, the affectionate performances of the six actors burdened with the daunting challenge of inhabiting young souls have not been stretched into grotesque shape by the move to a large theatre… William Finn’s score sounds plumper and more rewarding than it did Off Broadway. If it occasionally suggests a Saturday morning television cartoon set to music by Stephen Sondheim, that’s not inappropriate. And Mr. Finn’s more wistful songs provide a nice sprinkling of sugar to complement the sass in Rachel Sheinkin’s zinger-filled book… Mr. Lapine has sharpened all the musical’s elements without betraying its appealing modesty.”
However, the show has had a seemingly conflicted reception. The 2011 UK premiere of the show in London at the Donmar Warehouse (starring the famous British comedian Steve Pemberton as Panch, again an example of using comedians for the character) was given a review by Charles Spencer, as shown below:
The review by Spencer is evidently negative, and frankly insults the show. This proves that the nature of the musical can be perceived very differently and the comedy has the target audience (presumably) of Americans. I will refer further to the target audience as I speak about the style of the musical. Hopefully we will be able to entertain the majority of audiences – it is always is a risk performing foreign comedy to an audience, but I think the humour is well written and intelligent enough to garner laughs from the local public. I have personally been to see productions which have used American humour before (though not entirely of this type or scale), and I enjoyed them, as did the audience; seemingly.
American and British Humour
This debate has started mainly because of parallel pieces of media from Britain and America. A prime example of this is the television show ‘The Office’.
The article linked above is by Ricky Gervais (whom co-wrote, co-produced and starred in the British version of the show) for ‘TIME Magazine’. It is quite relevant to the Spelling Bee; starting with its point on irony. British humour uses such a thing very frequently, however, there is a common misconception that Americans do not understand it in the same way we do. Gervais points out that this isn’t the case; Brits use it socially. Along with sarcasm and a lack of sincerity, we use it almost as a blockade or defence mechanism, or even at the expense of others. This has become an arguably problematic problem in our psychology, although it does draw humor in fiction. Leading on from this, American humor is far more literal and uses little self-deprecation. British comedy is far more cynical, and we root for villains. Americans favour the hero, the flawed but joyous and prosperous characters, usually being quite childish. This is most likely a result of the opposing upbringings; Americans are filled with patriotism and such ideals, being told they can run for president, whereas British people are commonly told they aren’t good enough all their lives – it is therefore built into the psyche in these different ways. In terms of the Spelling Bee, the musical is very jovial, upbeat and sweet – definitely appealing more to the American humour rather than the cynics of British humour. This may be why the London production was received less well, as the comedy was designed for an American audience. Although this is the case, I think the script is good enough and suited to be able to show to local audiences as a piece of comedy. The use of audience volunteers will reinforce this, but I think there are elements of British-tilted humour in the show that will suffice to entertain the audience regardless, for example, Barfee’s witty one-liners (‘Miss Panchee’, in retort to her pronouncing his name wrong, ‘I get that all the time’, in response to Schwarzy’s first name being pronounced wrong by Panch).
Modern American comedy usually derives from slapstick and exaggeration, shown in cartoons. A prime example of this is ‘SpongeBob Squarepants’. Here is a clip from the show in which SpongeBob receives a splinter:
The scene is evidently exaggerated highly, and is considerably graphic for children’s television. The obnoxiousness, loudness and high-energy of the scene fit the formula of some American humour, which is in fact used in the show in scenes such as ‘The Spelling Montage’, as the characters go in fast and slow-motion.
This and many other cartoons use the fundamental formula of applying a bigger, caricature and somewhat disturbing take on everyday culture. The theme dates back to Thomas Morton, a colonist whom compared Native culture with that of Puritan Colonists, in his book ‘New English Canaan’. The satire provided a witty comparison of the two.
Other cartoons such as ‘The Simpsons’ also take this to a further level, which appeals more to young adults. Characters and themes explored in the show commonly portray other cultures in a stereotypical, shallow fashion which can be seen as offensive or hilarious, depending on the sensitivity of the audience. The Spelling Bee stereotypes the characters and American (it’s own) culture rather than others, apart from the image of Jesus, Olive’s mother and the stylised Indian music in ‘The I Love You Song’, which is in fact done by using a Sitar and Bongos:
Both instruments were used effectively by the live band in the show to make it clear that the song was referencing India; where Olive’s mother is in the context of the show. Olive fantasises about her telling her that she loves her, so she thinks of India consequently and the music reflects her thoughts (which the whole song is, effectively – her thoughts).
Back to the stereotypes, each example I just gave are all stereotypical in the realms of the show; and are simply used either for comedy (especially the appearance of Jesus) or clarity for audiences who are not familiar enough with foreignness. These situations of comedy eliminate the favourable irony for British audiences, so we are taking a risk but if performed well from an acting and technical standpoint, the audience should accept them and hopefully find it entertaining.
Comparison to ‘The Book of Mormon’
The comedy of the show is comparable to that of The Book of Mormon, as is its style.
Here is a link to my musical theatre research blog post, in which I looked into ‘The Book of Mormon’, just for context:
The Spelling Bee in fact (for some runs) has a unique event called ‘parent-teacher conference’, or sometimes known as ‘adult night at the bee’. A showing of this was covered in an article by ‘Playbill’, as linked here:
The original actor of Panch, the comedian Jay Reiss (also credited for giving ‘extra material’-meaning his improvisational one-liners-for the show), improvised very frequently in rehearsals to give these lines, similar to Kira and Rachael in our own rehearsals. He supposedly on occasion went quite far with this humour, and so this darker, inappropriate (for the semi-targeted child audiences) material was used for these special performances. It was performed on October the 2nd, 2005 in the Circle in the Square (on Broadway, midtown Manhattan) venue at 7:30 pm to audiences strictly over the age of 16. From this, I have learnt the versatility of the show and its style; and that it relies heavily on how the actors can influence the comedy to adapt the setting and atmosphere. This once again means Kira and Rachael have very important tasks for the show, and they need all the rehearsal time they can gather to perfect this aspect.
In terms of the comparison to ‘The Book of Mormon’, this musical relies heavily on American humour that is darker and more explicit. More specific to our production, the characters are very optimistic (and somewhat competitive; the character Elder Price is especially), exaggerated and energetic. They could even be described as camp. The characters in the Spelling Bee can definitely be described (mostly) this way. Here is a video of the opening number (‘Hello’) of the musical being performed at the 2012 Tony Awards:
^Even with the characters being their natural selves, the actors still have very precise movements and huge facial expressions, full of optimism and likeability. This a good example of this type of American humour on Broadway, other than that of the Spelling Bee. The acting engages audiences very well, and we should do exactly the same; even if our characters do not smile and are not jovial (like my own), we still need to put the effort into exaggerating everything and making sure we are precise to stay true to the engaging cartoonish humour of the show. The Book of Mormon was in fact written by the same writers for the cartoon ‘South Park’, so it is clear the cartoonish imagery has made its way onto stage format.
I also think it is therefore important for us as actors to embrace the bizarre, cartoonish nature of the show and perform in an exaggerated manner, rather than relying on realism. The musical itself is not overly realistic, especially due to the fact that conventions (commonly flashbacks) are used for almost every scene.
Social and Historical Context
The show is set in America, in Putnam county, located in the state of New York.
As for travel, he county has no airport but does have several train lines and highways leading into it.
Pledge of Allegiance
In America, this pledge is very important for citizens. It intends to spread unity and is used as an expression of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. It is widely recited on a regular schedule in American public schools, hence it being in our musical as a specific event in the context of the play. It was originally composed by Captain George Thatcher Balch, a Union Army Officer during the Civil War. He later preached in New York Schools, highlighting the specific importance of the pledge to the children in the context of the play; their school has a history of learning from this and sticking close to its meaning. It has varied over the course of existence, but the final version is used in the show and this is the version I therefore have learnt (as the entire chorus recite it, to emphasise the union and importance of the passage):
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
It was most recently altered in 1954 to include “under God”. It is not just the words of the pledge that have been altered; as have the music and salutes which accompany it.
The ‘Balch Salute’ was the original version, devised in 1889 to accompany the Balch version of the pledge. This involved the swearers pointing at their heads, their heart and then at the flag. The motion ended with a straight arm pointing at the flag, as shown below:
The salute was ever so slightly altered a few years later in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, whom again adopted a version of the pledge itself. This version started with the hand outstretched toward the flag, palm down, and ended with the palm up, as shown below:
The early versions of the salute bore a lot of similarity to the Nazi salute, which became infamous a few decades later. As a result, the salutes were abolished and a simple ‘hand-on-heart’ action was put in place as the Bellamy salute was amended in 1942. We use this most recent version as we recite the pledge in the play.
^Above is a video of historians discussing the origins and versions of the pledge. I find the varying opinions of it from the students interesting; some do not approve of its meaning and history. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge, nor can they be punished for not doing so. Here is text and information regarding the action:
However, I think that if we included this in our play, it would be too intricate and deep in meaning – we must stick to the simple joyous tone and light comedy of the musical.
Middle School Children
This is the classification of students usually aged around 12, but can span from 10-14 years of age in common cases. Some students can be held back if they do not qualify to pass onto high school. Basic subjects are taught to them and students often remain in one or two classrooms throughout the school day, except for physical education, library (studies of information technology and other areas of libraries), music, and art classes.
In 2001, there were about 3.6 million children in each grade in the US.
I have used this research to understand my character more and improve accuracy. It means that as an ensemble we can choose to vary the diversity of our characters. We already have the sub-classes of character archetypes (Barfee, Olive, Marcy, Chip and Coneybear), but if we like we can make minor adjustments to them to show more detail and deepen our characters to make them more interesting to watch. For example, some of the Chips could bring sports kit (as their characters are jock-type ones), but my research also shows that all of us could do so, as physical education is taught to all middle school students.
Although the original musical was designed for 5 child characters (principle spellers), I think the large ensemble of our production works nicely. The research shows that in the early 2000s, there were approximately 3.6 million children in each grade, so the large number of students at the bee (and therefore the large amount of us onstage) makes contextual sense. Putnam is a considerably populated area, the 1st of July 2017 census shows that there were over 70,000 citizens:
Real-Life Spelling Bees
Spelling bees are widely important competitions most commonly held in American elementary and middle schools. They have become a nationwide phenomenon, with many prosperous individuals going on to receive scholarships with the help of the bees, usually from the education it gives to pupils and the prizes which can help them out financially and open up more academic windows to pursue. The National Spelling Bee is an official nationwide competition, referenced as an important premium event (which one proceeds to compete in once they have won their county bee, which one must win their district for, as told by Rona; “each child had to win – or place- in their own district bee”) by Chip and more significantly by Barfee in the epilogues “William Morris Barfee studied for Nationals with his new friend Olive Ostrovsky.” Their website is linked below:
They state that “Our purpose is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives”, so this means it is quite influential for children’s lives. This makes the atmosphere that bit more intense in the context of the musical, which is clearly shown with the crescendos in the final songs (‘Second’, in particular), and as a supporter I should show a lot of enthusiasm to when my speller is doing well and to when ‘enemy’ spellers are doing not so well. When we have ran through Barfee’s victory in rehearsals, I have been very ecstatic in my character, to emphasise how truly important the event is and to win it is also a big deal and I am happy for Barfee as he prospers in life by succeeding in winning the bee.
^This video shows the national competition (which is in fact covered live on American TV each year) and its reign for 90 years. It again emphasises how important it is for American children. The spelling bee takes over their lives; they put a great amount of effort into studying for the bee and delve into using many different techniques, ‘flashcards’, for example. Some of the children even mention spelling bee legends as role models for them, including a ‘Dr Bailey’, connoting the passion further.
Here is a link to an article reviewing a showing of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’, which also highlights a real life example of a spelling bee:
It covers the result of the final of the 2018 national US spelling bee, held in Maryland. The winner was 14 year old Karthik Nemmani, whom won by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying, “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.” This quote proves that the musical itself is not entirely unrealistic about the ideas of winning; Barfee and Olive grow closer as rivals, and realise that they have the common interest and passion for linguistics, rather than being against each other they are both challenging their minds.