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Theatre / The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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At the 25th Annual
We've memorized the manual
About how to spell these words
Words that require thought
People think we're automatons
But that is exactly what we're not

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about six misfit kids in a spelling bee and the three crazy adults in charge. The music was written by William Finn and the book was written by Rachel Sheinkin. A later Broadway musical in 2005 opened to excellent reviews and several Tony awards.

The Broadway shows had unusual amounts of Audience Participation- a half hour before the show starts, four real audience members are picked to spell in the bee, for example, and characters will single out age-appropriate audience members as their "families." Often, an improvisational comedian is picked to play the official pronouncer, and comes up with increasingly hilarious and strange examples when asked to use the word in a sentence.

The six kids, in order of appearance, are:

  • Chip Tolentino, last year's winner, who is not only good at words but also a star baseball player
  • Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre, who has a lisp, is raised by her two gay dads and is precociously aware of political issues
  • Leaf Coneybear, a home-schooled Cloudcuckoolander who got into the county bee by default after everyone who beat him in the district bee had to withdraw
  • William Barfée, a Sickly Neurotic Geek who was doing well at last year's Bee until he was struck down by one of his many allergies
  • Marcy Park, recently arrived from out of state, who is good at everything; she won her old county's bee last year and went on to make the top ten in the national bee
  • Olive Ostrovsky, a shy girl who came to the Bee by herself because her mother is out of the country and her father is busy at work

The three adults are:

  • Rona Lisa Peretti, the emcee, who is disappointed with the path her life has taken since the glorious day when she won the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • Doug Panch, the word pronouncer, whose previous stint in the role five years earlier ended in unspecified ignominy
  • Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counsellor, an ex-con serving community service who thinks (at least at first) that everybody is taking the bee way too seriously

This musical contains examples of

  • Abusive Parents: Implied in "The I Love You Song" when Olive says her dad "takes out" on her what he wants to take out on her absent mother. Although depending on your interpretation, each speller has these to an extent.
  • Accidental Misnaming: Repeatedly for William "Barfy" whose surname is pronounced "Bar-fay."
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: The musical is based on another play, C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E.
  • Asian and Nerdy: Marcy, usually, though casting varies by production.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Even though the fourth audience speller usually gets an easy word like "cow", they're still expected to ask for the word's definition, then use in a sentence, before attempting to spell it, leading to these responses from Panch:
Definition: A cow.
Sentence: Please spell cow.
  • Audience Participation: Four audience members are picked to be spellers, and the audience of the play is treated as though it's the audience of the bee.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: After one audience speller gets a ridiculously easy word (usually "cow"), Logainne bemoans "I want words that lame!". She later misspells the simple word "vug" by over-complicating it as "vugghe".
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The contestants are all very odd in their own ways, but underneath that they're some damn good spellers.
  • Butt-Monkey: All of the spellers. Including those from the audience. Especially those from the audience.
  • Character Blog: Both Leaf and Logainne had blogs where they posted videos.
  • Character Tics: Each of the main spellers besides Chip and Marcy have a special technique to help them figure out the word before actually spelling it:
    • Logainne spells out the word on her arm
    • Olive speaks the word into her hand
    • Leaf goes into a trance
    • And of course, Barfée and his magic foot
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Leaf Coneybear has cats... lots of cats.
  • Counterpoint Duet: "Second" has both Barfée and Olive singing about their feelings during the climax of the bee.
  • Dark Reprise: Apart from the first few audience members, one of these comes up nearly every time someone gets eliminated. (A couple of contestants manage a Triumphant Reprise instead.) Leaf's reprise manages to be both, starting out dark and ending triumphant. Arguably the darkest is Logainne's, since she's the only one that is devastated by her elimination (aside from Chip, whose elimination is played for laughs). Her reprise doesn't end on a happy note. She leaves close to tears.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Marcy Park. William Barfée is a male example, initially being quite rude to Olive but later developing feelings for her.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: Olive's big song, with a Lampshade Hanging that the word she's spelling is defined as "removed from reality".
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Chip Tolentino washes out of the eponymous bee when he notices Leaf Coneybear's buxom older sister Marigold in the audience just as he is given the word "tittup." Predictably, he spells it with only one "t" and is disqualified.
  • Dream Ballet: One ensues when William realizes how much he has come to like Olive over the course of the Bee.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Every single character has serious issues.
  • Education Papa: One of Logainne’s fathers, Carl, makes her practice for hours, and desperately wants her to win.
  • The Eleven O'Clock Number: "The I Love You Song"
  • Ensemble Cast: While the two finalists William and Olive get the most focus, there's still no true main character, with each and every role getting their time to shine.
  • Extremely Short Time Span: Since the show presents itself as a real spelling bee, the performance takes place over a few hours, with a majority of it in real time.
  • Final Love Duet: While officially it's not, "Second" has some element of this. Just ask the shippers.
  • Geek Physiques: This can get passed around or eliminated on account of differing actors between productions, but Barfée is frequently overweight.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Logainne (pronounced like "Logan")
  • The Ghost: Played with: Olive's father never shows up, but appears in "The I Love You Song" in Olive's imagination.
  • Give Geeks a Chance: Olive and William
  • Gospel Revival Number: "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor"
  • Grade Skipper: Marcy has skipped both fourth and fifth grade.
  • He Is All Grown Up: The epilogue states that William grew up to be quite handsome.
  • Hippie Name: Leaf, as well as his siblings Marigold, Brooke, Pinecone, Landscape, and Raisin. Paul is a comical aversion.
  • Homeschooled Kids: Leaf Coneybear is homeschooled by a hippie family, and is excited to just see a gymnasium.
  • "I Am" Song: "I'm Not That Smart", "I Speak Six Languages", and "Woe Is Me" for their individual singers; "Why We Like Spelling" for the spellers as a whole.
  • Incredibly Long Note:
    • Logainne finishes "Woe Is Me" by holding the word "bee" for an impressive amount of time.
    • Mitch holds the "my" in "that is my prayer" in the middle of "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor," before he goes into the gospel section.
  • Inevitably Broken Rule: The instructions to the bee are given in song early in the musical, with special attention given to the lyric, "If you start to spell a word you may start over, but the sequences of letters already spoken may not be changed." Chip's attempt to backtrack and correct a mistake he made while distracted is what gets him eliminated, as the chorus throws this lyric back at him.
  • Insufferable Genius: For most of the play, William is rather smug about his spelling technique and gloats over one of the defeated spellers at one point.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counselor. He's an ex-con who at one point expresses a desire to "beat [the spellers] up a little, so they understand that pain has degrees." However, "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" is probably one of the happiest part of the entire show, since it's one of the only times any character treats the Bee as anything other than Serious Business. Oh, and in the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, it turns out that Mitch decided to become a comfort counselor full-time.
  • Jewish and Nerdy:
    • Logainne, the grade-skipping perfectionist speller, describes herself as "half-Jewish".
    • In a Chicago production, Chip was renamed Chip Berkowitz.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Jesus appears to be this in his short appearance.
  • Leitmotif: William has “Magic Foot”. Outside of it being the song used to describe his spelling technique, the melody plays during two of his most crucial moments: when his technique is disabled and when he’s given his final word in “Second”.
    • The “Goodbye” leitmotif is used regularly throughout the show, signifying a contestant’s been eliminated. “The First Goodbye” and “The Second Goodbye” are used when a guest speller is eliminated, “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” uses it triumphantly to send off the last guest speller, and the reprise of “Woe Is Me” is sung sadly to an eliminated Logainne.
  • Magic Feather: Turns out, Barfée didn't need to use his magic foot after all!
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: Leaf and all of his siblings (names may vary by production). They are: Marigold, Brooke, Pinecone, Landscape, Raisin, Paul.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: Most of the main cast is meant to be between ages 8-14 (though played by adults), but the play is written for general audiences, dealing with mature themes such as erections, innuendo, and abandonment. Exaggerated for explicitly R-rated productions.
  • Maybe Ever After: William and Olive develop feelings for each other and become friends, but it's never shown if things go further. The epilogue doesn't say anything to contradict them getting together and Olive explicitly saying she became a mother certainly implies she wound up with someone.
  • Minimalist Cast: Downplayed. While the six spellers and the three adults are the focal characters, there are several minor characters that only appear for a few scenes.
  • Minor Character, Major Song: "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor," sung by Mitch.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The show opens with Rona as a kid, winning a previous spelling bee.
  • Missing Mom: For Olive, both of her parents are absent in their own way. Her mother is on a self-discovery trip in India, while her dad is implied to be emotionally distant as a result. (As well as physically absent from the bee.)
  • Misspelling Out Loud: Most of the characters get eliminated for reasonable slip-ups involving doubled or silent letters — and then there's Marcy's rebellion against her parents' oppressively high expectations by spelling "camouflage" with a J and a Z.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • From "The I Love You Song", Olive's mother breaks the somber, beautiful tone of the piece with the line "if you feel my gloom, blame it on me. Blame it on your daddily and mammily, because depression runs in our family", which usually garners a few laughs from the audience.
    • "The I Love You Song" itself is a massive mood whiplash, as the play is almost entirely a raunchy comedy up until this point and there's utterly no warning that the upcoming song is going to be leading to more than a few tears until it finally starts.
    • Logainne's elimination could be seen as one, though it can vary between productions. She hilariously misspells a three letter word (vug)... but she doesn't laugh. Instead she begs America to still love her even though America hates losers. Some productions have her drag her feet off stage, but some make her leave in tears. She's the only character whose exit doesn't end on a happy note.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Apart from the general premise of having a musical about a spelling bee, some scenes particularly play this up with things like spelling in slow motion.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Panch interrupts "I'm Not That Smart" to ask Leaf to spell his word.
  • No Antagonist: The show is more focused on the competition and learning about the six spellers, leaving very little in the way of a villain. The closest anyone comes to being an antagonist is one of Logainne’s dads, since he deliberately spills soda on the ground, intending to disable William’s technique and get him eliminated.
  • No Fourth Wall: Along with the audience spellers, the audience treated as if they're attending the spelling bee rather than a play about a spelling bee. The intermission is even a "snack break."
  • Noodle Incident: The Incident Five Years Ago that prevented Panch from coming to the bee for some time.
  • No Romantic Resolution: Aside from Olive hugging William and him saying she helped him study, there is no resolution to their crush. Though their respective endings are open enough with nothing to contradict them getting together.
  • Odd Name Out: Leaf's siblings are Marigold, Brook, Pinecone, Landscape, Raisin...and Paul.
  • Opposites Attract: Logainne's Carl Dad and Dan Dad. Carl is all business, making Logainne practice her spelling without end, while Dan is much more lax and values Logainne's comfort over her ability to spell.
  • Overly Long Name: Logainne Schwartzandgrubinierre
  • Pals with Jesus: Marcy, apparently, as Jesus shows up to help free her from her Broken Ace status.
  • Parental Love Song: "The I Love You Song", though Olive's parents aren't actually there, she's only imagining them and wishing they'd express their love for her.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: At least one fake word always gets thrown at an audience member to spell. Justified in that at certain points, Panch needs to determine whether a spelling is fake or correct to get the audience member out at the right time, which is only guaranteed with a word the audience member doesn't know.
  • Pet the Dog: After being surly the whole show, Panch shows his sympathetic side near the end of the show by giving Olive the money she needs to pay the entrance fee to the bee.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: William Barfée often has his name mispronounced as "Barfy", and he is always quick to correct such instances ("It's Bar-FAY").
  • Puppy Love: William and Olive develop a possibly mutual crush.
  • Putting On My Thinking Cap: Barfée's "magic foot" that he uses to spell. It gets a whole song. Then Logainne's father attempts to sabotage the foot by spilling something all over the floor (in between contestants which is why the organizers don't see him do it) so Barfée can't use it to spell. This throws Barfée off for a minute, but he recovers and manages to get his word right anyway!
  • Raging Stiffie: Chip gets a whole song about one.
    Chip: Because my stiffy has ruined my spelling!
  • Rhetorical Request Blunder: After being given one of her words, Marcy mutters "Jesus Christ, can't you give me a more difficult word than that?" — and Jesus Christ makes a personal appearance to answer the question. It turns out all right for her, though, as Jesus doesn't take her literally and instead they have a friendly conversation about what she really wants.
  • Running Gag: In regards to the spellers' words. William gets terms that either sound off-putting or are medically related. Examples include halitosis, antihistamine (which is especially pertinent to his peanut allergy) and lugubrious. Logainne, who has a lisp, gets words with excessive “s” sounds such as cystitis and strabismus. Chip's naughty-sounding words have a lot to do with his libido— tittup, omPHALOskepsis. And Leaf's are all South American rodents.
  • Schrödinger's Gun: The main use for Perfectly Cromulent Words. Certain words given to audience members are declared correct/incorrect regardless of the actual spelling provided. Since the audience members can't be allowed to win the bee since it would ruin the plot of the story, this is justified.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: A recurring theme, most obviously in "Second".
  • Serious Business:
    • Spelling. This is justified in the song "Why We Like Spelling," wherein the kids explain how being good at spelling fills an emotional void.
    • Logainne's Carl Dad puts a lot of pressure on her, causing her to angst.
    • Basically, Mitch is the only character who doesn't treat the bee as one. He comes off as a bit of an Only Sane Man because of this.
  • Sickly Neurotic Geek: William has various chronic illnesses, including a severe peanut allergy and a rare mucus membrane disorder, which makes him quick to being overdefensive, but is intelligent enough to find solace in spelling, as well as the sciences.
  • Speech Impediment: Logainne's lisp.
  • Spelling Bee: The whole show takes place at a spelling bee.
  • Spelling Song: Well, it is a spelling bee. What's more surprising is how few are present; only "Magic Foot" and "Second" use the actual act of spelling as more than a brief spoken aside/background.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Doug Panch for Rona Peretti
  • Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism: Olive's mother can't come to the Bee because she's on a nine-month journey of self-discovery in India. It's not confirmed that it's an example of this trope, but the stated length of her absence, along with Olive mentioning that her father is really angry at her mother about something, is certainly suggestive.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: Chip's Lament comes in one of two versions, depending on the intended audience of a given production; the one without the rude words mostly has new rhymes to suit, except right at the end where it uses the original rhyme scheme and a Last-Second Word Swap to give attentive listeners a chance to realize precisely what Chip's lamenting.
  • Theme Song Reveal: Just before one elimination, the music segues into the departing character's "I Am" Song.
  • The Something Song: "The I Love You Song".
  • Tough Love: Logainne's Carl Dad really, really wants his daughter to win the bee.
  • Triumphant Reprise:
    • On being eliminated, Leaf does a reprise of his "I Am" Song, "I'm Not That Smart", which starts out sad but ends on a triumphant note, because although he didn't win he's lasted longer than anybody expected and proved to himself that he is smart.
    • Marcy's elimination song uses the tune of "Pandemonium", which complained that a good speller might still lose due to bad luck, with new words celebrating the fact that Marcy has taken control of her own destiny by deliberately getting a word wrong.
  • Twofer Token Minority: During Logainne's political speech, she often mentions that she not only has two gay dads but is also half-Jewish and mixed race.
  • Unwinnable by Design: The audience members cannot win the spelling bee; if they get too far, they'll unexpectedly get several hard words thrown at them in a row until they get one wrong. Justified, however, because the play wouldn't work properly otherwise.
  • Vague Age: It's never specified how old the kids are, probably because they're all played by adults anyway. Chip, Olive, and William are all old enough to be interested in the opposite sex, Logainne is younger than the others, and that's all we know. (The Scripps National Spelling bee, which presumably is what the kids are trying for, does not allow kids who have either not graduated from 8th grade or turned 15, whichever comes first.)
  • Victorious Loser: Leaf barely makes it into the last five before getting a word wrong and leaving the contest. Any of the other kids would consider this a failure, but to Leaf there's victory in the fact that he outlasted five other competitors and demonstrated that it wasn't just luck that he got this far.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Leaf is like this; however, it's not just his dad he wants approval from, but his entire family.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Olive has a seat saved for her father, who's working late. Naturally, he just gets later and later as the bee progresses.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: At the end, each character comes forward in turn to give a sentence or two about what happened to their character after the bee.
  • Worf Had the Flu: William lost the previous year, not because he misspelled a word, but because he had sudden medical emergency due to an allergic reaction. Given he wins here, he might've been victorious the previous year if that that didn't happen.

Alternative Title(s): The25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee