6 Treasured Memories From the Stars of Broadway's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The original cast of the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical is reuniting for one night only.
In the early part of the 2000s, a group of unknown actors got together with book writer Rachel Sheinkin and Tony-winning songwriter William Finn and to turn an improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman called C-R-E-P-I-S-C-U-L-E into a musical. The result was a now-storied piece of contemporary musical theater, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Workshopped and first performed in a cafeteria at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts in the summer of 2004, Spelling Bee, under the direction of Tony winner James Lapine, would swiftly move to off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre in early 2005 and then to Broadway's Circle in the Square later that year. Sheinkin would go on to win that year's Tony for Best Book, and Dan Fogler, a cast member who'd been with the show since its C-R-E-P-I-S-C-U-L-E days, would take home Best Featured Actor for his performance as the arrogant, "magic-footed" speller William Barfee.
On July 6, a whole decade since the show first opened on Broadway, members of the original cast will reunite for a one-night-only concert of the show at the Town Hall. Benefitting The Actors Fund's Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, the evening is dedicated to the memory of Angela "Spook" Testani Gordon, the original Spelling Bee stage manager, who died in 2014 at the age of 46 after a battle with cancer.
In anticipation of the concert, six original Spelling Bee cast members gathered to recall their favorite memories of the production, from front-row knitters to famous guest spellers.
1. Jesse Tyler Ferguson (original Leaf Coneybear): When I think about what defines the show, I think of us working in that cafeteria [in the Berkshires]. It was this space that we didn't even really try to disguise as a theater. There was one performance where a woman was knitting in the front row. [And then], nine months later, we're rehearsing our number for the Tony Awards...they were setting up the shot for Dan Fogler's "Magic Foot," and there was a crane and I said, "Dan, nine months ago we were in a cafeteria in the Berkshires, and now they're setting up a shot at Radio City Music Hall. This is insane." Those moments define the experience for me.
2. Sarah Saltzberg (original Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre): We had an actor [who] got sick in the middle of the show, and [stage manager] Spook came over the god mic and said, "We're gonna take a fifteen-minute break while an understudy gets into costume." And Jay Reiss, who played Vice Principal Panch, says, "We're actually not going to take a break. I see David Hasselhoff in the audience. David, would you like to come up and spell?" David Hasselhoff came up and we gave him word after word and he just spelled words for fifteen minutes. It was really funny and spontaneous. It was never the same show twice.
3. Dan Fogler (original Tony-winning William Barfee): This was one of my favorite moments. There's a part where the peanut M&Ms get thrown and they just landed everywhere. Peanut M&Ms all over the stage. It's f**king chaos. Because the heart of this show is improv, everyone, like clockwork, got up and picked them up, eating them on stage. It was this perfect, magical moment. The whole experience was like that: everyone loving each other and having each other's backs.
4. Lisa Howard (original Rona Lisa Peretti): [My favorite memory is] when we were first in the workshop, sitting there while Bill Finn was writing a song specifically for me at the piano. It was a song that ultimately didn't end up in the show, but he's at the piano and he's singing it and he's going "IS ANYBODY WRITING THIS DOWN!?" I was sitting there thinking, This is crazy, he's writing a song for me.
5. Derrick Baskin (original Mitch Mahoney): The first time we heard each other sing. It was just amazing. The first time Lisa [Howard], Celia [Keenan-Bolger], and I sang "The I Love You Song." We were in a room by ourselves at first, and the [other cast members] opened the door, and they had their ears to the door. It was like when someone opens the door and everyone falls in? That happened to us at Barrington.
6. Jenni Barber (original Olive Otrovsky on tour/Broadway Olive replacement): I was in San Francisco and Boston, and New York. One of my favorite moments is from when we were in Boston. This woman, the word she had to spell was "Jihad." And Boston's got that great accent. She goes "Jihad. J-I-H-A-Ahr-D." She put an R in there. It was hysterical. We had someone dragged out and arrested in the middle of our show in San Francisco. That was hilarious. One of the spellers in San Francisco, he was spelling everything correctly, and he got kind of warm and he took of his sweatshirt and his shirt said "Scripps National Spelling Bee." The next year, he won the [actual] spelling bee.