The theater business has been wringing its hands for decades wondering, “How can we get the bums back in the seats on Broadway?” I saw one terrific answer last weekend: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Reviewers have said plenty about this Tony award-winning show. I will only add a few thoughts: One is how little it takes in terms of effects, sets, lighting, and costumes to make so much entertainment. If every show could return so much on so little, Broadway would be a gold mine.
The structure of the show is ingenious. Since the whole story takes place at a spelling bee inside a high-school gym, practically no set is required. The upright-piano-plus-three orchestra is perfectly appropriate to the setting as well. The spelling bee provides a built-in narrative arc for the story to ride on. The real story is the human problems of the show’s nine main characters.
It fascinated me how the show incorporated the audience into the performance. Not only does the audience play the part of the spelling bee audience, but the show picks four audience volunteers at each performance to compete against the cast members as part of the story. This was truly interactive entertainment.
There is no “fourth wall” in Spelling Bee. This, of course, works fine for comedy. All stand-up comedians talk directly to the audience, and improv shows have long been incorporating audience members. However, Spelling Bee is no hit-or-miss improv show. It did have the whole audience laughing until we were gasping for breath, but one of the numbers—”The I Love You Song”—also had me weeping openly for the first time at a live show in years. This number is a young girl’s fantasy, triggered by her given word, “chimerical” (meaning “wildly fanciful; highly unrealistic”), that her self-centered parents might notice her and display affection. The characters’ stories deliver that all-important “meaning” to Spelling Bee that you don’t get with stand-up or improv.
Spelling Bee was an inspiration to me. It is an example of that rare thing that is so hard to achieve: interactive entertainment (albeit live) with humor, pathos and heart.