The six teenaged contestants that compete in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are strange and endearing. They have names like Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and Leaf Coneybear. Their body language is awkward, and they wear geeky clothes. They recognize that they are outsiders: "We love spelling, it makes us feel normal," they sing.
The characters may be a bit extreme, but their personal struggles are universal. The precocious Logainne cannot achieve enough to live up to the expectations of her two dads; Olive Ostrovsky yearns for the return of her mother — who's run off to an ashram in India — and the attention of her father; William Barfee, sharp-tongued, misanthropic and hindered by bad sinuses, cannot mask his loneliness.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, with a score by William Finn and a Tony Award–winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, makes audiences laugh — a lot — and moves them at the same time. There are productions in New York, Boston and Chicago, and a national touring company that travels in December to San Diego, Reno and Costa Mesa.
"So often our personalities are shaped by a single moment, which often relates to competition," says director James Lapine. "We live in a country that is so wrapped up in competition, and we tend to remember when we lose more than when we win. It touches me to see how a competition affects who these young people might become. I think the reason the show is successful is because everyone can relate to it. Young or old, everybody remembers the moment, whether it's a bee or a part in a play or an election or a ball game. I remember a baseball game where I struck out every time I came to bat. Those things kind of haunt you the rest of your life. I guess they make us who we are." Another reason for the show's success is Lapine's direction. Actors playing youngsters often seem to be imitating rather than inhabiting their characters. But the cast of Spelling Bee makes you forget that you're watching adults. "It isn't difficult for them to get there," he says. "I always make the casts observe kids; I have them go to schools. It helps remind them of the mannerisms of kids that age. We want them to be real people, and we concentrate on the characters more than on their age. The costumes do so much work for them. It becomes an exercise in less and less."
Adding to the fun is the use of audience members as contestants at every performance. "We avoid selecting anyone who wants to be an actor or people looking for an opportunity to show off," says Lapine. "We tend not to choose the people who really want to do it. We try and get people who are a little reticent about doing it, maybe someone who is being coaxed by his wife. We want people who really spell well, and we make them believe that they could win. The [actor playing the] vice principal gets to choose the words for these people, from a list of 50 or 60 words. We have words of varying difficulty because you never know who's going to get what right. Believe it or not, we've had people misspell cow on more than one occasion. People get nervous, and suddenly they're saying 'k-o-w.' We've also had people that we could not get off the stage, who really know how to spell. But they've never been able to win. We actually thought about trying that, but couldn't figure out how to do it."