Stage & Dance

The sweet spell of success

Riding the tour bus between stops for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Nikki Switzer reads books as an escape from work. Lately, though, she has found work creeping onto those pages.

"We have a lot of obscure words in the show that, prior to being in the show, I had never heard of or seen in print anywhere," Switzer says. "With all of the downtime we have, a lot of us will read for five or six hours at a time on the tour bus. I read about a book a week, and I've been shocked at the amount of words that are showing up in the books that I'm reading that I think, had I read them a year ago, I wouldn't have noticed them.

"But now, I think, 'The Spelling Bee is following me.'"

The Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee grew out of the odd pop-culture obsession with spelling bees a few years ago: the hit documentary film Spellbound, the movies Akeelah and the Bee and Bee Season (based on the novel), and ESPN broadcasts of the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

The show started from an idea in a skit by a Manhattan comedy troupe called The Farm. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein saw the group's improv piece C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E and suggested to composer Bill Finn that it would be a great idea for a musical comedy. Finn liked it and recruited writer Rachel Sheinkin, who with Farm member Rebecca Feldman developed the show. On Broadway, it won two Tony Awards, including best book of a musical for Sheinkin.

The story centers on six kids competing in their county's spelling bee and the impact the event has on their lives.

"They learn about growing up and family and losing and the pressures put on them by family and the pressures they put on themselves," says Switzer, who plays the host of the spelling bee.

Each night, the host relives her own childhood glory: when she won the bee as a 12-year-old. The cast also has an assistant principal and an ex-convict who's doing community service as a comfort counselor for kids who don't win. ("He gives them a hug, and says, 'Better luck next time,' and sends them off with a juice box," Switzer says.)

The rest of the characters are kids, but they're played by adults.

One of the big selling points of the show is audience participation: Four people are chosen each night to participate.

"People sign up before the show, and then our understudies are out there, and they cast four people to be part of the show with us," Switzer says. "They get up there and they spell, and they're not told anything other than to ask the definition and the sentence for the word, and so we never know what they're going to get right and what they're going to get wrong. That makes it exciting every day."

If you're going to sign up, Switzer declines to hint at any words you should study up on. "Nothing can help you," she says. "Either you're a good speller, or you're not."

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