One girl walks only in straight lines, talks like a lisping machine gun and has pigtails pulled so tight she looks as if she's going to explode. Another kid is a portly know-it-all with a sinus condition and a special trick of spelling his words silently in advance--by tracing them on the floor with his foot. Then there's the overachieving Asian girl who objects to being introduced as someone who speaks five languages. Actually, she says a bit resignedly, it's six. And, she wonders, do the notes about her also "say that I only sleep three hours a night, and I hide in the bathroom cabinet, and I'm not allowed to cry"?
Broadway has had its share of nebbishy musical stars, from Seymour Krelboyne in The Little Shop of Horrors to Leo Bloom in The Producers. But it's fair to say that no stage has ever been so densely populated with wacky misfits as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The off-Broadway musical, a sleeper hit that is moving to Broadway next month, charts the angst of six nerdy and needy young people as they wrestle down words like capybara and omphaloskepsis in their efforts to win a trip to the national spelling finals. Coming on the heels of the documentary Spellbound (which Disney wants to make into a musical too), it's an utterly charming look at one of the screwier manifestations of the American Dream.
With witty, lightweight songs by William Finn (March of the Falsettos), the show is, first of all, a funny spoof of the rituals of these contests--from the up-close-and-personal commentary, delivered in earnest half-whisper by the moderator ("Mr. Barfee has a sea anemone circus in his basement"), to the ridiculously unhelpful sentences meant to put the words in context ("Sally's mother told her it was her cystitis that made her special"). The show also, more distractingly, partakes in the current Broadway fad of audience participation: four civilians each night are selected to go onstage to compete alongside the actors. (They're coached in advance to ask two questions--for the word's definition and for the word to be used in a sentence--but they rise or fall on their own spelling skills.) Yet what's so winning about the show is how these dysfunctional teens grow on us through the evening and become poignant object lessons in the hazards and rewards of our driven, elimination-tournament culture.
Spelling Bee started life as a play (originally called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E) by an off-off-Broadway improv group called The Farm--whose director, Rebecca Feldman, had never quite got over misspelling the word bruise in a grade-school bee. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whose nanny was in the cast, went to see it and alerted her friend, composer Finn. He turned it into a musical, which was staged first in Sheffield, Mass., before making the return trip to New York City.