What I really love about Spelling Bee is that it is not a conventional musical. While it still tells a story and has a full score of beautifully crafted songs, the excitement comes from the real-time element of the show and the outrageous modern humor throughout the script. I think of it as an outrageously funny play that happens to have music in it and which works well for audiences who prefer one or the other. This show seems to satisfy both tastes. When I saw Spelling Bee in its original Broadway run, I remember it as one of the most exciting and funniest pieces of theatre I had ever experienced and it has stayed in my head since I saw it back in 2005. It is filled with unique theatrical elements that allow it to stand alone as one of the most curious and satisfying of modern theatre moments.
The length of the show is as long as the spelling bee itself, and it runs without an intermission, so you are basically watching the competition in real time, with a few fantasy elements thrown in for good measure. It is a great challenge as an actor and as a director because you have to be prepared for just about anything, including being highly aware of the current world events that are going on during the run of the show. Those references can and do change nightly, based on the actor’s and director’s whims as to what is ‘hot’ at the moment. It is a constantly evolving production in that sense.
The most unique element of this particular show, however, is that it requires some dedicated audience participation at every performance. While we have a group of actors on stage playing the spellers, every night we recruit four members from the audience, surveyed from a pre-show poll and different each night, who come on stage and actually participate in the competition. It is a great challenge for the actors because not only do they have to focus on their own performances but they have to be responsible for guiding these four non-actors who have just been “thrown to the wolves”, so to speak. It is double duty to produce a top-quality, focused performance, guide these non-actors around the stage and be able to think on your feet and improvise, because you never know what could happen with such chaos thrown into the mix. That is what makes this show so thrilling to watch night after night. We have rehearsed so many different scenarios with volunteers who have come to our rehearsals and been “guinea pigs,” creating possible problems that could throw the actors off and forcing them to find ways around such issues without breaking character or letting the show get off track. It is extremely challenging but wildly entertaining for me to see how they deal with it.
I can say without a doubt that this has been one of the most rewarding and wildest rehearsal processes I have had as a director. Spelling Bee is one of those shows you will come see probably more than once, have an outrageously fun time and still be talking about a week later. To me that is what the power of theatre is about… to entertain, provide escape and add just a bit of a spark to your everyday life. That is something that every person needs in their life from time to time, and that is our job.
I hope you find this show as exhilarating and memorable as it has been for me as a director. Here’s hoping it brings you as much laughter and joy as it has for me over the past few weeks.