Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Stage

'25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' comes to the park

William Finn loves rhymes, and that's a good thing, because rhyming is part of what he does for a living as a songwriter.

Take My Friend, the Dictionary, the signature song of Finn's musical about a collection of oddball word wizards, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee:

I love my dictionary

And I love the indented border

Every word's in alphabetical order

Nowadays, when dictionaries are online, Finn's use of "indented border" is getting to be an anachronism, but for anyone who has paged through a dictionary, it summons up the experience precisely.

"I rhyme where I hear it," Finn, 61, says from his apartment in New York. "A rhyme clicks the thought in, and as a listener you feel you are being taken care of. Rhymes are fun. And they help you think."

Spelling Bee is this year's American Stage in the Park production that opens with a gala on Friday. The 2005 musical was a Broadway hit for Finn, who seemed like the perfect choice to write the music and lyrics for a show about words.

"If you're doing a show about a spelling bee, and what words mean and how they're constructed, it makes sense that the lyrics should be clever," says Steven Flaa, who is directing the musical for the third time. "And Finn's paint such a vivid picture."

In 1992, Finn won a pair of Tony Awards for Falsettos, his trilogy on gay and Jewish themes, but subsequent shows, such as A New Brain and Elegies, while witty and touching, had just modest success. It was his friend, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who suggested he look into an improv group's skit about spelling bees as possible material. After seeing a video of it, the songwriter decided that it had the makings of a musical and recruited playwright Rachel Sheinkin to write the book.

"It was written very quickly," Finn says. "A lot of it was written during a January up in the Berkshires. You couldn't go out because there was so much snow and black ice. I felt like I was the writer in The Shining. All we did was write and write. That show was finished so quickly because we were locked in a house in the middle of winter."

Spelling Bee, which won two Tonys (including one for Sheinkin's book) is about six misfits who battle it out over ridiculously difficult words to spell like "boanthropy," "omphaloskepsis," "hasenpfeffer" and "weltanschauung." Recently, the National Spelling Bee, held May 28-30 in Washington, announced a rule change that contestants will not only have to spell words but also know their meanings. ("Boanthropy," for example, means "the delusion that one has become an ox.")

"So now Spelling Bee is kind of a period piece," says Flaa, 52, who has directed seven productions for American Stage, including Altar Boyz and Little Shop of Horrors in the park. He is returning to the company for the first time since being in the cast of The Rocky Horror Show last spring. He played the Narrator and was besieged with shouts of "Boring!" whenever he spoke in the audience-interactive show.

"It was one of the most miserable experiences in my whole life," he says. "I could rationally tell myself, it's the character, it's not me, but there was a time I was thinking of giving my notice because it was so awful. I knew it wasn't personal, but it's hard to have people yell 'Boring!' every time you open your mouth."

Flaa's favorite song in Spelling Bee is The I Love You Song, which is sung by Olive Ostrovsky (played by Alison Burns) and her estranged parents. Olive sings to her mother, who is on a spiritual quest at an ashram in India, that her father is angry.

I think he takes out on me

What he wants to take out on you

"That's my favorite in the show, too," Finn says. "It's all put very civilly. It's about a person awakening to violence and trying to remain decent and sweet about it. I find it heartbreaking."

For the most part, though, Spelling Bee deals in comic songs, such as the pubescent lament of Chip Tolentino (Dick Baker), My Unfortunate Erection. Because of the popularity of the show with schools, Finn had to write an alternative, less amusingly graphic version called My Unfortunate Distraction.

"For the record, the original is funnier and more to the point," he writes in a production note. "Use it, if, at all, possible."

Another favorite of Finn's is the title song, "but I love it mainly for its music," he says. To play the score in the park, Michael Raabe leads a four-piece band that includes a pair of keyboards, reeds and percussion.

Finn, who considers himself "primarily a lyricist who writes his own music," teaches musical theater writing at New York University. "I tell my students that everything they write better be from life, or if it's not from life, it better sound like it's from life," he says. "I'm trying to get them to write as personally as possible without getting sentimental and sickening."

Are there songwriting rules he has students follow? "There are plenty of rules, but you can disregard them at any moment. Brilliance trumps anything."

In some ways, it is surprising that Finn is not more of a fan of Cole Porter, the great lyricist-composer with whom he has a few things in common. But he finds that Porter too often sacrifices emotion for cleverness.

"Cole Porter doesn't thrill me," Finn says. "I love his music. But in his lyrics, I think he's too cute by half. I can sometimes be smart, but I always try to be emotionally truthful."

Several Finn shows have been autobiographical — A New Brain came after an operation he had for a brain tumor in 1992 — but Spelling Bee is not, except that "I so associate with those students," he says. "The events of their life are not mine. But their emotional life and my emotional life are very similar."

Finn thinks his best work was in Elegies, a 2003 song cycle on love, loss and remembrance that he wrote in the wake of 9/11. It has what he considers his best song ever, Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving. Sung by Michael Rupert on the cast CD, it's a conversational homage to Mark Thalen, a lawyer who died of AIDS.

"I don't think I'll ever write a song that is more cogent and smart," Finn says. "There's nothing forced. It just kind of lays itself out on the table. It ends with thanks, but what it doesn't say, of course, is that it is from a time that was the beginning of AIDS."

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

     
           
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