The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a one act musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. The show centers on a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley Middle School. Six quirky adolescents compete in the Bee, run by three equally-quirky grown-ups.
The 2005 Broadway production, directed by James Lapine and produced by David Stone, James L. Nederlander, Barbara Whitman, Patrick Catullo, Barrington Stage Company and Second Stage Theater, earned good reviews and box-office success and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two, including Best Book. The show has spawned various other productions in the U.S., including a national tour with performances in Canada, and Australian productions.
An unusual aspect of the show is that four real audience members are invited on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. During the 2005 Tony Awards, former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton competed. Another amusing aspect of the show is that the official pronouncer, usually an improv comedian, provides ridiculous usage-in-a-sentence examples when asked to use words in a sentence.
For instance, for the word “palaestra,” he says, “Euripides said, ‘What happens at the palaestra stays at the palaestra.'” At some shows, adult-only audiences (over age 16) are invited for “Parent-Teacher Conferences,” also known as “adult night at the Bee.”
These performances are peppered with sexual references and profanity inspired by R-rated ad-libs made during rehearsals.
Spelling Bee, together with The Drowsy Chaperone, Xanadu, [title of show], 13, Road Show and others, is one of a number of musicals that have no intermission, with a relatively small cast and short running time of less than two hours.
The Broadway cast album was released on May 31, 2005 and is available from Ghostlight Records, an imprint of Sh-K-Boom Records. The original Broadway cast recording was nominated for a Grammy Award.
The musical begins with Rona Lisa Peretti entering the gymnasium to set up. As she passes by the microphone, she has a flashback to the moment when she won the third annual spelling bee by correctly spelling syzygy. The spellers are introduced as they enter, and sing about their anticipation of the bee (“The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”). Rona then welcomes the audience to the bee, and calls the selected audience spellers to the stage. She also calls up Olive Ostrovsky, who has not paid the entrance fee yet. When asked if she has a parent in the audience who can pay, Olive reveals that she has arrived by herself on the bus. Rona lets the fee slide for the moment. She then introduces the official word reader, Douglas Panch, who is returning from a five-year hiatus. Panch alludes to an incident five years ago, but declares that he is in a much better place now. Panch introduces the intimidating-looking comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney, who is doing this as his court-mandated community service. Mahoney leads the spellers (now including the audience spellers) in the Pledge of Allegiance. Panch then explains the rules of the spelling bee (“The Spelling Rules / My Favorite Moment of the Bee 1”)
The spelling bee begins, and as each non-audience speller is called forward, the audience learns about his or her background through flashbacks (with other characters in the flashbacks being played by the other spellers on stage, including simple nonspeaking roles played by the audience spellers, as guided by the actors). Olive is shown to be shy and reserved, a result of her uninterested parents — her mother is in India on a spiritual journey, and her father is missing the bee to work late, as usual. She has come to love spelling by reading the dictionary in her home (“My Friend, the Dictionary”).
When Leaf Coneybear is called to spell the first time, it is revealed in a flashback that he came in third at his regional bee, but advanced to the county finals when the winner and runner-up had to attend the winner’s Bat Mitzvah. His word is capybara, which he has no idea how to spell, but he ends up spelling it correctly while in a trance with an unknown cause.
When William Barfée is called to spell for the first time, Rona describes his unusual technique — he spells the word out on the ground with his foot to get a visual before speaking it. He demonstrates his confidence by returning to his seat immediately after spelling his word, and responding “I know” when Panch says that it is correct.
After a particularly easy word is given to an audience speller, the spellers erupt in “Pandemonium” and rant about how the element of luck makes the bee unfair.
When Leaf is called the second time, he receives acouchi, which he again does not know how to spell. He reminisces about how his family repeatedly calls him “dumb”, a sentiment that has sunken in and that he has come to believe. Again, in a trance, he spells the word correctly (“I’m Not That Smart”).
Barfée is called again, and this time sings about his technique (“Magic Foot”).
Chip Tolentino then is called, but he is not paying attention. Rather, he is fantasizing about Leaf’s attractive sister, Marigold, in the audience. He is snapped out of his daze, but is reluctant to take his turn because he has an erection that is showing. Under threat of disqualification, he takes his turn, but his thoughts (aided by the vaguely erotic word that he is given, tittup) distract him and he misspells the word. He catches himself misspelling the word, and backs up to save himself. Unfortunately for Chip, “if you start to spell a word you may start over, but the sequences of letters already spoken may not be changed,” as the rules state. He begs for another chance, but Mitch eventually hauls him off (“Pandemonium (Reprise) / My Favorite Moment of the Bee 2”).
At this point, the last audience speller is eliminated (he or she simply is called repeatedly in succession and given increasingly difficult words). Mitch sings a special serenade to this audience member for making it this far (“Prayer of the Comfort Counselor”).
The remaining spellers (all of the normal cast spellers except for Chip) go on break, and Chip passes through the audience selling snacks, the punishment for being the first eliminated. He explains to the audience why he lost (“My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)”). Barfée taunts Chip, who throws a bag of peanuts M&M’s at him. Allergic to peanuts, he has Olive pick them up for him. Olive and Barfée converse awkwardly, and Barfée begins to develop a crush on Olive.
With the break over, Rona introduces the finalists as they reenter. Last to be introduced is Logainne, who describes her two overbearing fathers and the stress that they put on her (“Woe is Me”). In a rapid montage sequence, the bee is shown progressing through many rounds, ending with Leaf’s elimination on the word chinchilla. He walks away head held high, having proven to himself, despite his elimination, that he is smart (I’m Not that Smart (Reprise)”).
Marcy is called to spell, and Rona, who has been announcing factoids about the spellers all along, announces that Marcy speaks five languages. Marcy corrects her, saying, “I Speak Six Languages”. She reveals more about her stressful life, where she is pushed to succeed in everything, which she does not enjoy. She is given the word camouflage, to which she sighs, “Dear Jesus, can’t you come up with a harder word than that?” Jesus Christ then appears to her and teaches her that she is in control of her own life. Resolved to do what she wants, not what is expected of her, she intentionally misspells the word and exits excitedly (“Jesus / Pandemonium (Reprise #2)”).
Olive’s cellular telephone rings — it is her father, who she has been anxiously hoping would arrive. She is not allowed to answer the telephone, but she persuades Rona to answer the call for her. Bothered by the breach of the rules, Panch loses his temper and lashes out at Logainne, who is up to spell. Mitch wrestles Panch out, and in the ensuing chaos, Logainne is left alone in the gymnasium. One of her fathers jumps onstage to calm her down, and he pours some of his soda on the floor to make Barfée’s foot stick and thus disrupt his technique.
With Panch calmed down, everyone returns to the gymnasium, and Olive is called to spell. She asks what her father had said, and is saddened to learn that he said he is running even later than planned. Her word is chimerical, and mirroring the word’s definition, she imagines her parents’ being there and giving her the love that she always has wanted (“The I Love You Song”).
Barfée is called to spell next, and, when using his signature technique, his foot sticks. However, he is able to spell his word correctly anyway. Logainne is next, and she overcomplicates her word vug and misspells it (“Woe is Me (Reprise)”). Rona is excited that it has come down to the final two (“My Favorite Moment of the Bee 3”).
The finals are shown quickly through another montage (“Second”), and Olive and Barfée continue to grow closer, in part by taunting Panch for his earlier outburst. Eventually, Olive misspells a word, giving Barfée a chance to win by spelling his next word correctly. He is torn between winning and letting his Olive win, but with Olive’s encouragement, he spells his word correctly (Weltanschauung). Panch awards Barfée the trophy and two hundred dollar prize, and in a surprise act of charity, gives Olive a fictitious runner-up prize of twenty-five dollars from his own pocket — exactly the amount needed to cover her entrance fee. Olive congratulates and hugs Barfée, and all of the characters read their epilogues (see below) (“Finale”).
Immediately preceding the Finale song, each character gives a brief history of his or her character after the spelling bee.
Vice Principal Panch found a new passion in his life. Her name was Rona Lisa Peretti. After courting her tirelessly for over two years, she took out a restraining order on him. Still, he was grateful for the opportunity to experience love.
Rona Lisa Peretti left Putnam County for a stretch, and traveled the world to bring competitive spelling to the less fortunate. She hosted national bees in Latvia, Sweden, and the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, where she fell in love with an indigenous cashew farmer and became one of the top realtors in that country.
Mitch Mahoney discovered a new talent at the Putnam Bee, so he made his community service lifelong, comforting eliminated spellers and frustrated educators across the nation. Over the years, he remained in touch with scores of people he had comforted. (At this point, after Mitch finishes his blurb, all of the other characters simultaneously say “Dear, Mitch!” and continue on with their respective asides.)
Chip Tolentino made it through adolescence, and in the course of time came to appreciate his erection. As did many others.
Marcy Park continued to explore the freedom of not living up to expectations. She later wrote a book called Not Living Up to Expectations. It did not live up to expectations. She is very happy.
Leaf Coneybear has cats.
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre won the Thirty-First Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, on her seventh try and final year of eligibility. She went on to become Secretary of Education under President Chelsea Clinton. Her speech therapy was completely successful.
Note: The President Logainne serves under is often changed to reflect other famous figures of the time. “President Ellen DeGeneres” has been used, as have “Chastity Bono’ and “Lindsey Lohan”. “President Barack Obama” was used in early 2007, and in the current London production it is “President Miley Cyrus”. In the licensed version of the script, the President is an ad-lib spot, with “Chastity Bono” written as a suggestion.
William Morris Barfée studied for Nationals with his new friend, Olive Ostrovsky. He came in forty-second.
In later years, he grew up to be incredibly handsome and to gain fame and notoriety for his pioneering efforts in the combined scientific fields of psychiatry and podiatry — otherwise known as poschiatry.
Olive Ostrovsky reenacted the entire bee for her father in the car ride home. She grew up to be a loving and attentive parent, and the host of her own radio talk show, where every year she interviewed the runner-up of the Putnam County Spelling Bee.