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Spell Me 

The bee may be just a game, but in Putnam County we see a dark side, too

Wednesday, Mar 29 2006
The dawn of the 21st century brought with it many preoccupations, from the War on Terror to Paris Hilton. Of all these national obsessions, the current fascination with spelling bees has to be one of the most revealing of the contemporary American psyche. The moldering schoolhouse tradition has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season (adapted into a movie last year, featuring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche) and the Academy Award-nominated documentary Spellbound to the forthcoming feature film Akeelah and the Bee, starring Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, and James Maguire's nonfiction book American Bee, due out in May. The "Spellympics" even became the focus of a February 2003 episode of The Simpsons.

That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other for the chance to win a $200 savings bond, has been attracting audiences like bees to honey. The show won 12 major awards (including two Tonys) and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. It has been so successful that Disney canceled plans to produce a bee-themed musical of its own. Now, predictably, the Putnam County spellers are going national: Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall.

Commercial potential aside, it's easy to see why the bee has such broad artistic appeal. For one thing, the competitive element — bungle just one word and you're immediately eliminated — makes for great drama. It's exciting to see prodigal talent in action: When a cute kid stammers his way through "omphaloskepsis," we laugh and cheer; when he trips up on "tittup," emotional catharsis ensues. For another, spelling bees are veritable hives of quirky characters, the average contest providing enough material to fill five novels, three screenplays, and an entire operatic cycle. On a more philosophical level, these matches represent life's fundamental struggle, teaching tough lessons like "There will always be someone better than you" and "Life isn't fair." Finally, the subject is inclusive. We were all children once, and all share the experience of learning the difference between "through" and "threw."

With the above in mind, it makes sense that most of the films and books about spelling bees tell in-depth stories of individual children to draw us in. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, however, is different. Because musicals present life in a heightened and much less naturalistic way than other art forms, the characters in Spelling Bee are little more than artfully performed cliches. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Chip Tolentino (earnestly depicted by Aaron J. Albano) is a geek in a scout uniform with a perpetual hard-on. Careening around the stage in a bicycle helmet and makeshift cape, Leaf Coneybear (endearingly embodied by Stanley Bahorek) is a space cadet in the literal and metaphorical sense of the phrase. Jared Gertner's larger-than-life William Barfee ("It's pronounced "Bar-FAY!") is a hypochondriac with an unusual technique — he traces words on the ground with his foot before spelling them out loud. Greta Lee brings a seething sullenness to her portrayal of Marcy Park, an overachieving, plaid-wearing Asian-American. Precisely performed by Sara Inbar, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is the lisping, pigtailed, politically active daughter of two gay dads. Finally, we come to Olive Ostrovsky, a sweet blonde kid in dungarees and stripy socks (played with simplicity and warmth by Jenni Barber) whose parents are perpetually absent.

Though Sheinkin attempts to imbue the stereotypes (notably Olive) with some depth, it's as entertainment that this musical primarily succeeds. But that's not a bad thing. Of course, Spelling Bee has its faults: Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous." Attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like the reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident that popped up in the middle of the performance I attended — feel forced. And many of the laughs come cheap (a particularly inane tune about Chip's overactive schlong is a case in point). Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways — from defining the word "Mexican" as "anyone from Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Spain" to inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance — the musical prevents us from becoming too involved with the lives of individual characters (as we are with other, more realistic, narrative-driven works like Spellbound). As a result, Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game.

For all its playfulness, the musical does hint at a dark side. Spelling bees are a peculiarly American phenomenon. Growing up in England, I never heard of them, much less competed in one. Isn't it strange that a country driven by a desire to simplify spelling — you don't see "EZ" and "Drive-Thru" in Europe, and extraneous vowels in British words, like the "u" in "colour" and "favourite," have been removed from American usage — should so voraciously support a system of competitive spelling?

This apparent contradiction reveals a deep-seated insecurity in this country's self-image, a discomfiture that Spelling Bee illustrates. Intellectuals have long spoken of the United States growing up too fast. That the kids in this show are played by adults is more than a comic ruse; rather, the casting suggests an environment in which children can't be children. They must prove their worth by spelling absurdly complicated "grown-up" words. If the spelling bee suddenly surfaced in mainstream culture in 2001 after 75 years of relative obscurity, it's because the event symbolizes in a profound way the loss of innocence experienced by Americans in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It might also represent a need to be prepared, to be smarter than our enemies.

Spelling bees, with their clearly defined right and wrong answers, their systematic approach, and their celebration of fundamental skills, seem like a positive use of time and energy in these less confident times. As the Putnam County spellers put it: "In spelling/Things have logic and line/And in spelling/There's a greater design."

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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