Preview: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
October 20-23, 7:30 p.m., October 22-23, 2:30 p.m.
Directed by Alexander M. Willis ’14
Produced by Mariel N. Pettee ’14 and Gökcan Demirkazik ’14
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, is a musical take on a spelling bee and the unique psychologies of its participants. Competing in the bee are six cast members as well as four people picked from the audience to be in the play. This conceit adds a fresh improvisational aspect to the performance. The characters range from a pressured-to-be-perfect Asian genius who speaks six languages to an archetypical hippie “flower child.” While the varying quirks of the characters—from likeable Olive, who only wants her parents to love her and give her some attention, to Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, a precocious daughter of two gay dads—provide a dose of light-hearted comedy, their greatest appeal is their relatability.
“Besides being super campy and fun and silly, this play is also smart and Harvard students can relate to the characters during their discovery of the implications of the drive for success. There is definitely a dark side to the spelling bee,” says Susanna B. Wolk ’14, who plays Logainne. Mindy Yi ’15, who plays Marcy Park, similarly linked her character and the childhood travails of Harvard students. “She is a perfectionist and everyone expects nothing less than perfect out of her, so she strives to be the best. But in the end she realizes that there are things more important than that.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is its interactivity with the audience. Though the participating audience members will be chosen with their consent when they enter the theater, one “Harvard celebrity”—a House master, professor, or the like—will feature in each show. In keeping with the musical’s tradition of altering the script in each production, the show will also contain a number of Harvard references, and possibly a jab at Yale. Despite what may seem like a postmodern sensibility, director Alexander M. Willis ’14 isn’t seeking to over-innovate. “I want to bring a traditional musical to Harvard. I don’t want to make it avant-garde … [the script is] pretty much what I want it to be,” he says.