Meet the talented contestants of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The last time someone made a Broadway show out of adolescent angst was 1982, when Jeffrey Kindley and Craig Carnelia posed the musical question Is There Life After High School? Not the least of the virtues of this surprisingly poignant enterprise was a touching duet between amorous adults titled "I'm Glad You Didn't Know Me (in High School)." Which, essentially, is the sentiment that sweetly underscores The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the musical that made a beeline for Broadway's Circle in the Square last month after winning raves at Off Broadway's Second Stage.
Here, the bar has been lowered to middle school, where embryonic behavior can be observed with the naked eye. Geeks don't grow any gawkier: the six under scrutiny here are misfit superspellers. Underneath the words and letters, young lives are taking shape.
LOGAINNE SCHWARTZANDGRUBENIERRE is the political-firebrand contender, a natural consequence of having two politically active gay fathers. The role is played by Sarah Saltzberg, a self-confessed "terrible speller," who recalls her character started at Audition One. "We were told, 'Just bring in a couple of characters, and we'll interview them.' I based my character on a little boy I taught improv to at P.S. 6. He was driven. He'd written a book when he was ten. Then, I drew on parts of myself, too. I'm driven, obsessive, an overachiever. For all of us, there's a lot of personal history on display." Born in Seoul and brought up in Lakeland, Florida, by an adoptive family, Deborah S. Craig came to her audition with her character also formed — and named. When she was asked her name, she said, "'MARCY PARK, but you can call me Gramarcy.' They let me keep that name, but thought Gramarcy was too cute. Park is a very common Korean name, and one thing I wanted was for her to be Korean–American, because I thought it was a great representation." The show began as a play created by a collective called The Farm and its founder, Rebecca Feldman, and then turned into a musical with William Finn songs and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. Craig entered the picture at that crucial turn.
"My character was added when I joined the cast," says Craig, who prepared well for the role in high school. She ran track, was in the science club, sang and played the organ at church, did theatre and won spelling bees.
"Life sets up the character," she says. "The character is based on me and my personal childhood." She's positive Marcy is the first Korean-American character in a Broadway musical and also thinks she may be the first Korean–American character on Broadway, period.
The thing Jesse Tyler Ferguson likes most about his role, LEAF CONEYBEAR, "is his inability to edit. Everything's out there." When he goes into his spelling trance, his eyes cross and he expels the letters as if baying at the moon. "When I first did it, it was very cartoonish. Then I fine-tuned it, and [director] James Lapine took what I had and molded it into a real kid."
Ferguson went to "a private Catholic school [in Albuquerque] where it was all about sports. There wasn't a good arts program there, so I started the speech-and-debate team and went to the nationals. It still exists." His ten-year reunion was sweet revenge. "At the time, I had a Fed Ex/Kinkos commercial going so people knew I was doing good. I was not popular in school, but everyone wanted to congratulate me. I don't hold grudges."
Jose Llana plays last year's spelling champ, CHIP TOLENTINO, who suffers an acute case of raging hormones in the heat of competition. "It's just like middle school for me," Llana allows, "but now I get paid for it. The backbone of Chip is that he was always that kid in the class who knew what was going on. This little problem that he has [public erections] is the first thing that he can't control, and it unnerves him."
As for his own school experience, "I was one of those people who was always in charge of things, always in choir and drama and, I guess, incredibly insecure but made up for it by being The Loud Guy. In middle school, I was very heavy. I didn't discover sports until high school. I cultivated that personality when I was fat, and, when I grew up and changed, it was still there."
Maybe the most compelling character is poor little rich OLIVE OSTROVSKY, who is without a cheering section (friend or family) at the competition — or even the entrance fee.
"She's someone who lives inside of her own head a lot and suffers from a fair amount of low self-esteem," figures the actress playing her, Celia Keenan-Bolger. "I grew up in inner-city Detroit. Basically, for my whole childhood, I was one of three white kids. I was very outgoing and very popular — but always with this very reversed existence: The White Girl. Everyone was nice to me, but I think there's a certain amount of that outsider feeling I can tap into for this."
WILLIAM MORRIS BARFEE — who prefers the pronunciation that rhymes with "parfait" but is constantly being addressed as one who barfs — comes with his own ritualistic tics and twitches (like a magic foot that spells). Dan Fogler drew the character in broad strokes, and Lapine brought it down to classroom temperature. "James has a gentle hold. He'll let you explore the hell out of your role. Then, when it gets down to the wire, he'll sculpt you. He grounded everybody in reality and gave the show heart."
Fogler admits he "wasn't a very good student, but I was class clown and got by in a Ferris Bueller-y sort of way. I was, relatively, 'a cute kid' — except for that stage, every few years, where my mouth would be too big for my head. That I put into this character — and my brother's collapsed nasal passage. Barfee is an amalgamation of everyone who has had an awkward stage, who's transitional and has growing pains and needs love but is so incredibly hard to look at — even by his mother."