Drunken Spellers, the Making of "Magic Foot" and More Memories from the Cast of Spelling Bee

News   Drunken Spellers, the Making of "Magic Foot" and More Memories from the Cast of Spelling Bee
Original cast members from Broadway's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee reunite for a special ten-year anniversary concert tonight at Town Hall. Before they hit the stage, we caught up with the spellers in rehearsal and took a trip down memory lane.

Click here for more information on the concert!

Front Row (R-L): Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg, Back Row (R-L): Jose Llana, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson
Front Row (R-L): Celia Keenan-Bolger, Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg, Back Row (R-L): Jose Llana, Deborah S. Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson


What was your reaction when they called you to reunite with the Spelling Bee cast in concert? Have you all kept in touch over the years?

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: We have. I think we all keep in touch with each other to different degrees, and some of us see each other more often than others, but the idea of getting together in a room and just hanging out and revisiting the piece was the most alluring to us. Also, that fans of the show — and new fans of the show — are excited to see it is really exciting.

Sarah Saltzberg: I actually went and watched it at [the library at] Lincoln Center a couple of weeks ago because my fiancé had never seen it, and I also [thought], "This would be good for me to watch." And, the themes of this show — the themes of making friends, and family, winning isn't everything — [still resonate]. It's so funny — watching this recording from 2006 and thinking, "There are people from this cast who are still some of my best friends in the world that I made during this show…" And, you always think during a show, "Oh my God, we're totally going to be friends forever," and I do think that even then, we knew that it did feel really special — this journey for us all felt really special and different. Jesse Tyler Ferguson: I think all of our lives changed with this show, too, in different ways. Our careers took off in different ways because of this show, so it holds a special place in our hearts just because professionally it did so much for us, but [also] the relationships that we formed are so tight. Having to work on something from the ground up — actually work on characters' dialogues and creating the characters' names — that's a gift that you're not getting a lot as an actor. To really work from the very ground up — that's what we got to do over those first months in the Berkshires [at the Barrington Stage Company], putting the show together.

Sarah Saltzberg: And, all of us really brought our own personalities and childhoods and experiences to our characters. We all helped really craft the characters and build the characters, and so I think for that reason, too, it's not like we're playing these characters that are so far away from us. They're very close to us.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: They're personal to us.

What is your favorite memory from working on the show?

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: We did start at such modest beginnings in the Berkshires, and the show moved very quickly to Broadway. We came to Second Stage, and then we transferred to Broadway right before the Tony Awards cut off, and I remember we were in Tony Awards rehearsal, and we were on stage at Radio City Music Hall, and they were setting up a shot — a crane shot — of Dan Fogler's "Magic Foot," and they had this whole big moment at Radio City Music Hall, where the camera backed out of the audience and focused on his foot, and I said, "Dan, they are setting up a crane shot of your foot, and we're in Radio City Music Hall. Literally nine months ago, we were in a cafeteria in the Berkshires. Nothing ever happens like this. This is insane!" And then that night he won a Tony Award for the part. I think that moment of just how quickly everything evolved was a really poignant moment for me at least.

Sarah Saltzberg: I remember when David Stone, our producer, actually told us that we were moving to Broadway before [a performance] at Second Stage, and he gathered us and said, "So, I just want to let you know…" It was a very little lead up; he didn't give us a lot of information… He goes, "I just want to let you know that the show is moving to Broadway," and all of us — it was just stunned silence. And then he just goes, "Well, I thought you guys would be happy." And then we all sort of erupted, and it was really thrilling. But one of my favorite moments was we used to go to the Palm [restaurant] all the time, and they were so good to us and treated us so well, and they invited us — and a friend, if we wanted to bring friends — to Lobster Fest they had one day. It was in between shows on a Sunday, and we went, and we all just overate. We just ate so many lobsters and mashed potatoes and things like that, and afterwards we came back and did the show, and all of us were like, "We do not feel good!" We had to push through the show, and it was very interesting because we all would just kind of look at each other and be like, "Okay, we got it." We lifted each other up, and that was really indicative, I think, of a lot of the process in the show — if somebody wasn't feeling well or if somebody was going through a hard time, so it does feel very fitting that we're doing this show again for somebody who was pretty integral to the show, [stage manager Andrea "Spook" Testani Gordon]. I think that we all feel like a family, so we, as a family, are sort of getting together to raise this money for her family.

What are some of your favorite memories of "Spook"?

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: I remember, on the New Year's Eve performance, I didn't realize that they changed the curtain time [for the holiday schedule], and so I arrived to the theatre and said, "Gosh, there's no one here today." Usually, it's bustling outside. And, I walk — it's at Circle in the Square — into the theatre, and the show is going on. The show had already been going on for an hour, and Spook had been calling me. I was wearing a winter jacket, so it was deep within my winter jacket, and I hadn't heard it ring or feel it vibrate, and I immediately went into the stage management room, and she just looked at me, and she gave me a big hug. She goes, "I didn't know where you were. I've been calling you. I've been so worried!" She really cared so much for all of us. I was always on time, and here I was like an hour into the show, and she still hadn't heard from me, and she was so concerned about me.

The <i>Spelling Bee</i> Management: Lisa Koch Rao (Company Manager), Kelly Hance (Stage Manager), Andrea "Spook" Testani (Production Stage Manager) and Jayna Neagle (Management Assistant)
The Spelling Bee Management: Lisa Koch Rao (Company Manager), Kelly Hance (Stage Manager), Andrea "Spook" Testani (Production Stage Manager) and Jayna Neagle (Management Assistant) Photo by Ben Strothmann

What did you sing for your audition?

Sarah Saltzberg: We sang for Bill [Finn]. I sang something from Aida, but I sang it in character: "This is a story of a love that flourished in a time of hate!"

Jesse Tyler Ferguson: I remember that [book writer] Rebecca [Sheinkin] made me improvise, and she asked me what my favorite word was, and I said lackadaisical. I don't remember what I sang though. I think I sang "Try Me" from She Loves Me. I don't know! I don't remember.

What was your favorite memory from Spelling Bee?

Jenni Barber: When I saw that original Broadway cast! That's my favorite.

Dan Fogler: There was this one time where one of the actors got sick offstage during the show, and they were like, "We need to take a break," and then Jay Reiss, who was the principal [Douglas Panch], was like, "Actually, we're not taking a break because I see David Hasselhoff in the audience!" [Laughs.]

Jenni Barber: Stop it, are you serious? 

Dan Fogler: I always like the moments where it's so unplanned and unscripted. Who knew what David Hasselhoff was going to do, but he literally was just like, "All right, I'm ready for my moment." So, he got up and did about 15 minutes of material. People laughed their balls off, and then we got the other [actress] into costume, and they brought her back out, and we continued the show, and that was just one of the special gem moments that happened, where the "Knight Rider" saves the day. Can you recall any onstage mishaps?

Jenni Barber: Well, we had somebody dragged out of the theatre in San Francisco because she was wasted, and she was screaming and got arrested in the middle of the show. We just stopped and watched her. That happened once… One person got up on stage. After Barfée won, he came up and was like, "I know you won and all, but you misspelled some words…" He got on stage — I don't know how he did it — but I was like, "We're all going to die. This is the moment that we all die…"

Dan Fogler: I remember it was opening night, and Vadim Feichtner, the music director… I guess he went to the movies, and he was walking down the stairs in the dark, and he tripped, and he hit his head — something happened, he kind of forgot what happened — and they just found him sitting by the piano, trying to go through the motions and remember the show. And, we were like, "Are you all right?" And, he was like, "I don't have much feeling in my arms right now." And Bill Finn was like, "Can you… playthe show?!" [Laughs.] "Can you give me two hours?" And, Vadim says, "Yes." And, he basically played the show and did it brilliantly with very little feeling in his arms, and then they rushed him to the hospital, got him checked out, and he was fine. Isn't that crazy? Bill Finn was like, "This is important!" 

What did you sing for your audition?

Jenni Barber: I had to sing like a legit song. It was something like, "I Wish It So" [from Juno]…

Dan Fogler: I didn't audition. I created my character from scratch. It was a show called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, which was the improv version of the Spelling Bee show, and in it, I did this "Magic Foot" move, and Bill Finn basically wrote the song about the "Magic Foot" and handed me that on the first day in rehearsals, and I was just like, "Holy crap! They made a song out of this weird, silly dance I made up," and the rest is history. I never had to audition since! I wish I did audition. Maybe I'd get more things! [Laughs.] 

Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg, Derrick Baskin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Deborah S. Craig, Lisa Howard, Jose Llana
Dan Fogler, Sarah Saltzberg, Derrick Baskin, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Deborah S. Craig, Lisa Howard, Jose Llana

Can you share a memory of "Spook"?

Jenni Barber: Once, after Bee had closed, I ran into her, and she had her two babies in the stroller, and she was just the happiest person in the world, and it was a beautiful, amazing moment. I just thought, "Gosh, if I could be a mom like her, it would be amazing." I'll always remember her in that moment.

Dan Fogler: Spook was like the Rock of Gibraltar. No matter what, she always had the same veneer. If you could imagine in a show full of crazy, lunatic kids [and] what could go wrong — she just always stayed the course. She probably had the best blood pressure on the face of the earth.

Jenni Barber: She always lived with kindness and a lot of compassion. She just put up with a lot from all of us. She was a saint, truly.

What was your reaction when they called you to reunite with the Spelling Bee cast in concert?

Derrick Baskin: You didn't even have to ask us. I feel like we were thinking, "Why haven't we done [one already]?"

Lisa Howard: We were all like, "Of course! I'm in. Definitely."

What is your favorite memory from Spelling Bee?

Derrick Baskin: Always singing with Lisa. When we first met at Barrington, and we first sang "The I Love You Song," I remember it. Do you remember it? Lisa Howard: MmmHmm…

Derrick Baskin: And, I was like, who is this woman that I'm singing with? It was crazy. I think that was like one of my most favorite moments…

Lisa Howard: And then remember when we took it, and we sang it for other people — out in the room around a piano? Also, then, when we were at the Tonys. That was just…

Derrick Baskin: Beyond magical.

Lisa Howard: Where the heck are we?! I remember that anticipation, waiting behind the curtain, Bernadette was singing, and all the shows were waiting at the start of the [show].

Derrick Baskin: I remember sitting on stage and looking out at the Tonys audience and saying, "Holy crap, we're on the Tonys." That was amazing, and no one knew who we were. [Laughs.] That was even better!

What did you sing for your audition?

Lisa Howard in <i>The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee</i>
Lisa Howard in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Photo by Joan Marcus

Lisa Howard: My audition, I asked Vadim Feichtner:

"What's this Spelling Bee thing? My friend has an audition. Should I come in?"
"Really? Okay."
"Okay, done. I'm not going to come in." 

I was out of town doing a gig, happened to be in town visiting my friend, having a glass of wine at her house, I get a call from Vadim, "We're having auditions right now. Bill wants you to come in."
"Vadim, I don't have music or a headshot, and I'm drinking a glass of wine right now. What?"
He's like, "Just come in, just sing something."

So, I went in. Literally left my friend's house, went downtown, and I don't even remember where the audition was. Carmel Dean, who was playing, happened to be playing somebody else's cabaret show that night [and had me sing something from City of Angels and "Over the Rainbow"]. They described the character of Rona to me and had me improv as her, and I was like, "Okay." I think [after] the improv, people were like, "No, she's not funny." And, Bill was like, "No, no. She could do it." Bill fought for me because I wasn't from the improv world. Bill was like, "I need someone who could sing." When we opened at Barrington, Bill said to me at the opening-night party, "Yeah, they just kept saying, 'She's not funny! She's not funny!' But I said, 'Yes, she is. She can do it!'" And, Rebecca [Sheinkin] was standing next to him like: Hehehe! Oops. But Rachel Sheinkin said to me, "In your defense, you did exactly what they told you to do. They described the character, and you did exactly what they said. You just didn't make it jokey. You were just honest." And I was like, "Okay!" You know, from that improv world, everything's about making a joke and finding the funny. She was like, "In your defense, you did exactly what they asked you to do." So that was my story. I really didn't have a real audition.

Derrick Baskin: I sang "I (Who Have Nothing)" from Smokey Joe's, and I remember singing, and a third of the way through, Bill started laughing… Carmel played mine as well, and Vadim was sitting next to Bill, and I was like — I had never had anyone laugh — "Either I am really doing a fantastic job or I'm God awful." And, it doesn't feel awful. But he was laughing. He was like, "That's it. That's the guy."

Lisa Howard: I don't think I ever heard this story.

Derrick Baskin: I think a few of the people wanted me to [play] a kid, but all the kids were cast, and so I'm around the same age as everyone.

Lisa Howard: Me, too! I'm like maybe two years older than the other people.

Derrick Baskin: Exactly. If that.

Lisa Howard: I'm just tall, and everybody who they cast as kids is basically short except for Jose Llana.

Derrick Baskin: So they were like, "We kind of want him as a kid. Let's keep looking for another Mitch [Mahoney]," and Bill was like, "No, listen, he's the guy. That's the end of it." He fought for us. He really did.

Can you share a memory of "Spook"?

Lisa Howard: One of my favorite things about her — she always wore Birkenstocks [and] overalls. I remember her telling me that at the Actors Federal Credit Union, they have this thing called the Holiday Fund, and you can do your own holiday account, which throughout the year, you put money in. She [said], "I put money aside however often because I save up for holiday presents," and at this time she didn't have kids, and she wasn't married, but she saved like $2,000 a year to spend because she wanted to give her family presents. I will always remember that. She had the forethought. She saved specifically so that she could give her family presents. Isn't that awesome? 

Derrick Baskin: More than anything, I remember her smile. I just remember this energy that she gave off, which was such a calming, nurturing, positive energy, although she ran a really tight ship. She was a really good leader for us; she was also a good nurturer for us. It was all of our Broadway debuts, and this was old hat for her. She took us under her wings, and she ran a tight ship, but she ran it with love. And, there was always a smile — always, even when she didn't feel like smiling. I just remember her smile, and her eyes smiled. I remember this twinkle that she always had. 

Can you recall any onstage mishaps?

Lisa Howard: One time that guy had too much to drink — that speller.

Derrick Baskin: And, I remember one of us accidentally took an Ambien instead of an allergy pill. That was hilarious! I won't say who — I'll just say one of us.

Lisa Howard: That was special. 

Derrick Baskin: I remember a man who was a college professor, and he had a camel-colored corduroy blazer, and I remember tapping him on the shoulder and a big cloud of dust coming off of his shoulder! 

Lisa Howard: I remember that! We all lost it! Oh my God, yeah. I remember sometimes I would forget my monologue at the end, and I had it written down, so sometimes I'd be like, "Rona Lisa Peretti…" and read it off the table.

Derrick Baskin: You would have your hand on it just in case. [Laughs.] 

Lisa Howard: I had like a block about that. It happened like two or three times.

(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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