The fact that the 2016 Tony Award nominations are set to be announced tomorrow morning has got me thinking a lot about my beloved Broadway and the first show I ever saw there, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (It also didn’t hurt that the above tweet was sent out by Playbill today. Thanks, Playbill!) “Spelling Bee” is a total delight of a show, and it set me on the track to become the big Broadway fan I am today.
So what was it that made “Spelling Bee” so great? The show, which, as the title would imply, followed the goings on at the local 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was unlike anything I had seen before. Despite the fact that it was a staged performance with a concrete beginning and end, it felt like I was simply an audience member at the local bee who was somehow magically granted access to the musical psyches of the spellers. (It probably also helped that I had recently seen the documentary “Spellbound” and had developed quite an affection for the kinds of kids who chose to enter the spelling bee, something I would have never thought to do myself.) The songs were funny and thoughtful and have definitely stuck around both in my mind and on my iPod.
The show certainly did a lot of make the audience feel like a part of things, from tossing candy and sheets with spelling words on them into the crowd to even inviting people (or in the case of their Tony Awards performance, the Reverend Al Sharpton) up to take part in the spelling bee themselves. While I’m not really one to partake in participatory stuff like that, it was fun seeing other members of the audience take a swing at spelling what were in some cases surprisingly complicated words.
It also helped that the show featured of stellar cast, many of whom, like Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lisa Howard, have gone on to pretty prolific Broadway careers. And then, of course, there’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson, whom I first saw in “Spelling Bee” who is now a big ‘ol TV star on “Modern Family.” They were all excellent and made me want to see what other big Broadway talents I had previously been missing out on.
For someone whose theatre knowledge prior was just sub-par community productions of “Seussical” and “Bye Bye Birdie” and a touring run of “Hairspray” (I grew up in Baltimore, where everyone knows “Hairspray”), “Spelling Bee” was a real introduction to all of the excitement and wonder that Broadway shows can provide. And now, over 10 years and 25 shows later, its safe to say that thanks to “Spelling Bee” I have become a tried and true Broadway fan.
Are you a big Broadway fan yourself? If so, what was the first show you saw? Also a lover of “Spelling Bee”? If so, do you speak six languages? Spell it out in the comments. And, before the curtain drops on this post…