PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Spelling Bee: There Is No "I" in "Team"

Opening Night   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Spelling Bee: There Is No "I" in "Team"
Sorry, Dan Fogler couldn't bop by Dodger Stages on May 2 to pick up his Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actor.
Dan Fogler; Sarah Saltzberg, Lisa Howard & Deborah S. Craig; William Finn; Eve Ensler; David Stone; Donna Murphy & Celia Keenan-Bolger; Elaine Stritch; Jeff Goldblum; Adam Duritz; Lea DeLaria
Dan Fogler; Sarah Saltzberg, Lisa Howard & Deborah S. Craig; William Finn; Eve Ensler; David Stone; Donna Murphy & Celia Keenan-Bolger; Elaine Stritch; Jeff Goldblum; Adam Duritz; Lea DeLaria Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Similarly occupied were Derrick Baskin, Deborah S. Craig, Lisa Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jay Reiss and Sarah Saltzberg. Only two of the terrifically talented twentysomethings who act half their age in this sprightly musical remembrance of preteen angst and ecstasy have been down the Main Stem before—Jesse Tyler Ferguson in On the Town and Jose Llana in Flower Drum Song and The King and I. Everyone else was new to the Broadway club, fluttering away at Cipriani at 23rd and Fifth with friends and family in the post-premiere party that seems to exist primarily to celebrate Their Arrival.

Fogler had the foresight to send a designated award-collector, a friend from school—Jenn Harris, who, like him, made the nomination list because of James Lapine"s direction (in her case, of Modern Orthodox)—but he's on his own next Monday if his name comes up again for an award (from The Outer Critics Circle). Tony nominations are the next day.

Democratically, The Drama Desk nominators opted not to single him out for special mention but, rather, to lump him together with the whole cast under the helpful heading of Best Ensemble Work. Which is fair in a sense, since all are, in their highly idiosyncratic ways, playing the same thing—gawky, awkward adolescence stumbling into maturity.

Their rites of passage are conducted in competitive spelling contests rather than on the playing fields of athletic events. Here, and only here, are they the masters of their modest domains. Fogler, with eccentricities writ larger than the rest (starting with a "magic foot" that either scribbles out his words before he spells them or creates an invisible wall which shuts out the world), charges through the show like a baby rhino, miffed that the spelling officials—who are letter-perfect on the arcane words they throw at him—can't pronounce his name correctly.

There are a myriad of inside asides about spelling bees—the moderator who describes the cerebral action of a speller-in-thought in the hushed tones of a golf play-by-play, the official who uses the word in a nonsensical sentence (Reiss writes and delivers these hilariously unhelpful hints, earning "Additional Material" credit), the contestant who scrawls the word in question on her arm before she spells it, and words-within-words wordplay. William Finn of Falsettos fame, in a sharp change of key, has put all of the above in songs, and Rachel Sheinkin has strung it all along in a very humorously human book based on an original straight play which Rebecca Feldman wrote for her company, The Farm (titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-UL-E—one of the words used to stump and coagulate young minds).

How this project came together from all these disparate components amounts to a small miracle—if you stand off and look at it, it logically shouldn't have happen—and it has everything to do with a five-year-old young lady named Lucy Jane Wasserstein.

Saltzberg was playing nanny to Lucy Jane when she wasn't playing C-R-E-P-U-S-C U-L-E downtown, and she invited her charge's mother to the show. The Tony-writing playwright Wendy Wasserstein responded in the common courtesy of uncommon women, caught the show and came away raving. "Immediately after," said Saltzberg, "Wendy said, `This show needs a full score,' and she called Bill, who came down and saw the show, agreed and got to work on it. If I were an actor outside of this project and I heard about this story, I would think it was quite inspirational. I have really lucked out having a mentor like Wendy. She has been so helpful every step of the way. I have never met anyone like her."

Wasserstein was on Finn's arm at the opening, clucking contentedly over the project she had godmothered into existence. "When I saw the show without music downtown," she recalled, "it reminded me of when we were young and at Playwrights Horizons. It just had that kind of verbal facility and brightness so I thought this was the right show for Bill Finn. Then Carole Rothman [of Second Stage Theatre] and Lapine fell in line soon after that. Tonight I thought some shows are just developed in the right way, and this was one."

She tends to shrug off her miracle-working. "I had a great nanny," she says. [Yes, Wendy. Overtipping is one thing, but this is ridiculous.] She is obviously pleased it came to pass. Now she can get on with a play of her own—Third, which is to lead off the season at Lincoln Center this fall, with Dan Sullivan directing. Dianne Wiest will play a professor, and Tom Aldredge (at present one of the Twelve Angry Men) will play her father.

The show's birth mother (and Reiss' fiancee), Feldman, graciously stepped aside and let other creative forces take over the show rather than let the project die on the vine. (She is allowed redemptive billing and, one would think, a healthy percentage.) "I wanted to say something shocking like this show came out of my vagina, but I won't." Obviously, she was feeling the presence among the first-nighters of The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler. "Eve came up to me and gave me a huge hug—I don't even know her—and she said, 'I'm so proud of you.' I was fine, all night, but when she hugged me, I lost it."

Ensler was the guest of Spelling Bee's lead producer, David Stone, for whom she is writing a play. "It won't be a one-person show," she promised. "It will be a two-person show." The project is untitled. And in the fall she'll take The Good Body on the road.

The brightest stars in attendance were clustered in and around the Lapine camp—Bernadette Peters, whom he directed to Tony nomination for Sunday in the Park With George, and Donna Murphy, whom he directed to a Tony for Passion. Peters expects to know next week, yea or nay, about "Adopted," the television pilot that she and Christine Baranski did for ABC (they've been trying to get together again since they played Sally and Marsha at MTC in 1981), and Murphy is getting her cabaret act together and following Elaine Stritch into The Carlyle in November. "It'll be the first time that I've ever done one," she noted—and, come September, it will be Stritch's first as well. Stritch was an opening-night guest, too, accompanied by her accompanist, but she skipped the party.

So did Jeff Goldblum, who made the performance as a pal of Reiss and Feldman's. It's his second consecutive night of Broadway openings, having made Glengarry Glen Ross on Sunday.

Also making it two-in-a-row were Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, who was highly complimentary to Finn about the score, and Mario Cantone, whose Broadway show Laugh Whore hits the Showtime fan on May 28. Cantone's partner, actor Jerry Dixon, is going great guns as a director these days. In fact, he's shooting it out with himself on May 9: Norm Lewis: Just Chillin', which he helmed, bows at Joe's Pub at exactly the same time the musical he's directing—Barnstorming—is featured in the Monday night reading series at the Stamford Performing Arts Center. Norm, I suspect you're soloing.

Lea DeLaria, Ferguson's one-woman band and cheering section, was very much there for her frequent co-star. "Let's count, shall we?" she said, whipping out her digits. "On the Town, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Little Fish, a movie called Mercury in Retrograde and my Christmas show. Five times. We're The Lunts!" Her record was just released last month. "It's called 'Double Standard,' and it's currently No. 9 on the Billboard chart. And I'm touring. I'm all over the place. And I'll be back here the 22nd."

M. Butterfly's Tony-winning author, David Henry Hwang, was rooting for Llana, for whom he revised Flower Drum Song. "I read in The Post that I might be doing the John Lennon musical, but it also said I haven't been approached, and I haven't been approached," he wryly noted. "I've been working on a Disney musical for a while which will be coming in fairly soon—called Tarzan—and I'm doing a new play which will be done at The Public, not this coming season but the season after. It's called Yellow Face, and it sorta relates to Face Value" (which abruptly sank without a trace right before its Broadway opening).

Speaking of Disney animation (and Into the Woods before that), a character in that show is the subject of a new feature-length cartoon from Uncle Walt's company called Rapunzel Unbraided, being scored by Jeanine Tesori, who reports that Kristin Chenoweth just recorded the first Tesori-Alexa Jung ditty, "What Would I Be Like?"

Jeff Marx said that he and his Avenue Q partner, Robert Lopez, have also heeded the Circe call of the studios. They are toiling over a musical for Universal.

Enjoying a night out of Chicago, Brent Barrett admitted that he was looking forward to summering in Seattle—from the end of July to August—in Princesses, the David Zippel-written-and-directed musical. Coming in after that? "That is the hope." Now with school in session, Lapine can turn his attention to more adult matters—like his play which he'll direct at Playwrights Horizons: Fran's Bed. Mia Farrow will fill it.

The stars Lapine created in Spelling Bee sing the same chorus of praise for him, but none better than Fogler: "Our show, in all of its reincarnations, has always been a pretty hysterical show. What James did was give it a heart. He really grounded everybody in reality. Not only are people laughing at the beginning, but they're crying at the end. We didn't have that before him."

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