The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
I was seated at Second Stage, ready and eager to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But before the show started, my mind wandered to that Broadway Spelling Bee I attended at the Bee-lasco Theatre sometime in the mid-'90s. I had a second-row seat and, with the curtain already up, I could see how nervous all the kids were -- even before Miss Lynch came out and announced that she'd be the spell-mistress today. She then introduced each of the six teens and tweens who'd be competing: Kate Monster, Eileen Baker, Annie Aldrich, Joanne Jefferson, Frederika Bergman, and Danny Hooper, Junior.

Miss Lynch modestly took her place at a desk to the side and announced that this would be a 100-word competition. She told us about each contestant, which is how I learned that Eileen Baker was the granddaughter of famed writer Ruth Sherwood Baker and famed editor Robert Baker -- and that Annie Aldrich was the granddaughter of Annie Warbucks and her husband, Henry Aldrich. (The grandparents were all in attendance.) Then, after the first four notes of the overture of Gypsy had played over the sound system, the Bee officially began.

At first, it went as beautifully as you might expect: Everyone easily spelled the words given. Kate Monster spelled "S-T-U-C-K-U-P." Meanwhile, to the left of me, two, uh, people -- each of whom looked very much like the Trekkie Monster -- whooped in support. (I know that Kate says she's not related to Trekkie Monster, but those two in attendance sure seemed to be family members.) Eileen aced "C-E-L-E-B-R-A-T-I-O-N," which caused Robert to exclaim "My darlin' Eileen!" and to make Ruth cry out, "98 words to go!"

"L-U-M-B-E-R-E-D, Lumbered," spelled Annie. "U-N-C-O-U-P-L-E-D," spelled Joanne. Frederika, who was introduced as the great-granddaughter of Desirée Armfeldt and Frederik Egerman, spelled "Flahooley." Then, when Danny nailed "Kwamina," I heard such a commotion behind me that I turned around and saw Lizzie and Danny Hooper cheering their son. Doesn't time fly? It seems like only yesterday that he was a baby -- but here he was, already a grammar schooler. I gave a look to each parent, then to the son, and saw that he indeed has her smile and his hair; his lips and her eyes; his hips and her thighs; her button nose and his bushy eyebrows; her little waist and his little fanny.

There was some difficulty in the second round, when Miss Lynch asked Kate to spell "Free," and she said, "F-R-double..., " prompting Miss Lynch to insist, "No, the long way." Kate came through with "F-R-E-E." "Fantasticks," said Miss Lynch. "F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C-K-S," responded Eileen, stressing the "k" because she knew this is the letter that many people omit when spelling the title of the world's longest running musical. I'll tell you, if the Broadway Spelling Bee were held today and I were the spell-master, I'd add Mamma Mia! to the mix. It's astonishing that this show has had so much visibility and yet many people spell it as Mama Mia! (On the other hand, maybe their short-changing the title is just their way of saying that the show comes up short.)

"Femininity," announced Miss Lynch -- and Annie wisely asked, "Could you use that in a sentence, please?" Miss Lynch nodded and obliged. "Three cheers for femininity." "F-E-M! I-T-Y!" said Annie. Joanne and Danny smirked, believing that Annie had misspelled the word; they were very surprised when Miss Lynch exclaimed, "Correct!"

"Liaisons," said Miss Lynch, and Joanne looked nervous. "May I have that in a sentence, please?" she asked. Miss Lynch nodded and said, "Liaisons, what's happened to them?" Joanne gave a baleful look that conveyed, "Well, that was a hell of a lot of help!" I guess it wasn't, because Joanne blew it. Clang, clang, clang went the bell -- the signal that indicated a wrongly spelled word -- and Joanne left the stage with her bee-stung lips closed tight. Suddenly, a high-powered-looking woman in the audience stood and said, "Come on, Harold!" He got up and meekly followed her out. (They were Joanne's parents, I suspect.)

"Rachel," offered Miss Lynch. Frederika's eyes narrowed to slits, for she smelled a rat: "Would you please use that in a sentence?" Miss Lynch nodded. "Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don't You Forget It closed in previews at the Broadhurst on Dec. 1, 1973." Frederika gave a knowing smirk. "Rachael, R-A-C-H-A-E-L, Rachael," she rapidly replied. I admired her for knowing that, in this debacle of a show, the title character spelled her name with an extra "a," saying that she took the letter that Barbra Streisand had dropped from her first name.

Danny was given "Eisenhow-sish" but was a flop with the spelling of the President's name as filtered through the sensibility of E.Y. Harburg. He was gone. Miss Lynch sang the song that begins, "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" from Little Me. Then Kate did much better with the one-time mayor of New York: "L-A-G-U-A-R-D-I-A," she said proudly.

Another politician's name showed up, given to Eileen. "Paniaschenkowitz," said Miss Lynch. A bead of sweat formed on Eileen's forehead but her voice was clear when she asked, "May I have that in a sentence, please?" Miss Lynch nodded with understanding, then said, "Try Michael Paniaschenkowitz; I'm certain he'd run." "Nobody likes a candidate whose name they can't spell," Eileen said, under her breath, before trying -- and failing -- to spell Mr. Paniaschenkowitz's surname. She too left the stage.

When Annie was given "Esspressivo," she knitted her brow in confusion. "Language of origin, please? What is that? Spanish? English?" "Neither and both. The two of them put together -- Spanglish," said Miss Lynch. Annie nodded knowingly but spelled the word incorrectly. As she left the stage, I noticed that, to my left, her grandfather was saying to his wife, "Now whatever you do, don't tell her 'the sun'll come out tomorrow.' Nobody wants to hear that anymore."

Kate Monster(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
Kate Monster
(Photo © Nick Ruechel)
That left just Kate and Frederika to duke it out. I was betting on Kate because I could already tell that she's pretty damn smart. And when Miss Lynch said, "Schadenfreude," Kate proved it to me by letting "S-C-H-A-D-E-N-F-R-E-U-D-E" trip merrily off her tongue. "Petroleum," demanded Miss Lynch. And though Frederika said "P-E-T-R-O-LE-UM" instead of "P-E-T-R-O-L-E-U-M," this was considered correct in the Broadway Spelling Bee because that's how Wildcat Jackson spelled it -- and whatever she did was good enough for Miss Lynch and us.

Would this round produce a winner? It sure seemed so when Miss Lynch said, "Tacarrembolatumbe." Wow, Kate Monster sure got a monster word!. But she composed herself and asked Miss Lynch in a meek voice, "Could I have that in a sentence, please?" Miss Lynch gave an accommodating nod and a smile, then offered: "Tall and slender, like an Apollo, he goes walking by and I have to follow him, the boy from Tacarrembolatumbe del Fuego Santa Malapiszaca tecasla junta del sol y cruz."

Well, Kate didn't even come close. That left it all in the hands of Frederika. But from the way Miss Lynch breathed before she uttered the next word, we all knew that it wouldn't be easy. "Schlauvryepluchgwngichgawgareichgwirmdroobehscantasilogawgawgoch," she said. Of course I expected to hear the by-now de rigueur (is that how you spell that term?) "May I have that in a sentence please?" Instead, Frederika confidently offered, "You mean, as in 'Tomorrow he sails; he's moving to Wales to live in Schlauvryepluchgwngichgawgareichgwirmdroobehscantasilo-gawgawgoch?'" Then, without waiting for Miss Lynch to answer, she followed that with a lickety-split spelling of the word.

"Right, of course, right!" exclaimed Miss Lynch. She handed the trophy over to Frederika, who winked to us in the first row and said, "It always helps to know Sondheim." Incidentally, that name is hard to spell, but it's less hard if you remember one of the first rules of spelling: 'i' before e,' except in Sondheim.'"

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]