Singing the Standards
By Gwynn Dujardin
The 25th Annual Putnam County
By William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin and Rebecca Feldman
Circle in the Square
50th St. betw. Broadway and 8th Ave.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
For those who couldn't make it to Washington,
D.C., for the 78th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee on June
3, 2005, cable television had them covered. The finals, won by
13-year-old Anurag Kashyap over Aliya Deri (also 13), were shown
on ESPN. Network executives contend that broadcasting the nation's
largest language contest reflects the sports channel's duty to
show any fair and vigorous competition. Everybody knows that if
you can spell, you're not athletic, though: you're academic. Your
idea of a good workout is probably tracing Middle English nonce
words to sources in early Sanskrit.
Take your seat in the stands at The
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and you'll see emblems
of sporting achievement juxtaposed with standards of scholastic
excellence. Pennants celebrating the Piranhas's recent basketball
victories place the upcoming spelling tournament in a local gym;
a basketball hoop facing the microphone puts the spellers implicitly
on the foul line; and the first contestant to take the stage confides,
"my parents tell me, just to be here is winning/ but I know it
isn't so." Having earned a place at Broadway's Circle in the Square
by way of the Second Stage Theater (the theatrical equivalent
of the regional finals) -- and having now won two Tony Awards
-- The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee conspicuously
spotlights American attitudes towards both language and competition.
Playfully scored, the musical atones for the ways spelling has,
historically, set Americans apart.
The production works as an immersion program.
From the moment you enter the theater lobby, you are sent back
to junior high. Bulletin boards display student work and posters
promoting model behavior (e.g. "Silent and Listen are Spelled
with the Same Letters") color the room. Enter the theater itself,
and anyone who has attended secondary school in this country will
recognize the scene. The director (James Lapine) and set designer
(Beowulf Boritt) could have easily presented the Bee
on a stage, platform to many a school assembly, but they set this
particular spelling contest in the Putnam middle school gym.
decision makes sport of the players' studied lack of athleticism.
Thus Leaf Coneybear, home-schooled and questionably socialized,
nonetheless speaks for the group when, on entering the arena,
he admits to having "never been in a gymnasium." Other conceits
from the world of sports broadcast the bee's exhibition of mental,
rather than physical, conditioning. The contest's announcer supplies
color commentary, for instance, massaging her remarks with contestant
trivia and explanations of sophisticated spelling techniques.
Nike and Pepsi evidently passed, but the Putnam Optometrists sponsored
the event (and why not, for what do we do at the optometrists'
office but try to ascertain the right letters?). Only in contestant
William Barfee (that's bar-fay) does physical grace combine ably
with an aptitude for spelling, as William's approach involves
tracing letters on the boards with his nimble "magic foot." With
characterizations such as these, the Bee attempts to
endear its audiences to its idiosyncratic competitors, and most
reviewers have responded in kind.
Something more thoughtful and less sentimental
is also going on, however, in the musical's opposition of spelling
to sport. Significantly, the first word spelled, by the announcer
reliving her own past glory, is "syzygy": from the Greek "syzygos"
or "yoked together," meaning "a nearly straight-line configuration
of three celestial bodies (as the sun, moon, and earth during
a solar or lunar eclipse)." In setting this bee in a gym and to
song, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee aligns
three portentous entities -- Standard American English (SAE),
Yankee individualism, and the American musical theater.
The two rituals that launch the bee establish
the production's target. First, just as the singing of the Star-Spangled
Banner typically precedes our professional athletic contests,
the Pledge of Allegiance commences every school day. In this competition,
which depends on (and promotes) the Received Pronunciation, the
Pledge is pronounced notably out of synch. It's not that the players
don't know the words or, like kindergartners, mangle its phrases
unknowingly. It's that they are half-hearted, lackadaisically
delivered, voiced at variance with one another. The subsequent
reading of the rules of the bee is, by contrast, keenly and communally
attended. The implication here is that the rules of the bee accomplish
far more in transmitting traditional American values than the
daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
That a bee should be represented as characteristically
American is owed, first of all, to the variability that characterizes
English spelling. Spelling furnishes grounds for suspenseful competition
only when orthography, or "right writing," can be engendered by
many plausible combinations of letters: in other words, when i
comes before e, except after c and occasionally other times, or
when the sound [ay] can be written as in "weigh" or "pay" or "fey."
In a transparently and universally phonetic language such as Spanish,
everyone could easily transcribe sound to letter, and thus everyone
would be a winner. There would be no point to a competition. When
the Bee's significant lisper, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre,
is tendered only words possessing English's many sibilants, spelling
becomes an absorbing and amusing spectator sport. A word like
"cystitis" -- an embarrassing condition that moreover puts awful
pressure on poor Logainne -- speaks volumes about the humbling
potential of English spelling.
Protesters against our punishing spelling
system stage demonstrations every year at the national bee. As
with the first such reformers in 16th-century England, contemporary
advocates for spelling reform campaign for a strict, phonetically
based orthography, an alphabet in which each letter designates
only one speech sound, or phoneme. Somewhat ironically, we owe
to the first English spelling reformers the very first dictionaries
in English: writing in protest of orthographic reform, renowned
Elizabethan pedagogue Richard Mulcaster recommended that spellings
be "stayed," or stabilized, through publication in "hard word"
lists. Mulcaster included such a list in his 1582 Elementarie,
and Richard Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall, the first
English dictionary, followed in 1604, setting English words in
-- a phrase so familiar, it's hard to believe it was ever strange
-- alphabetical order. Thus the variability of English spelling
got preserved in print, as the notion of a "standard English"
developed in tandem with the publication of reference texts.
In the musical, the stability theoretically
offered by dictionaries is addressed, even challenged, through
the poignant figure of Olive Ostrovsky. Sadly, Olive's parents
are no-shows to the bee: her mother seeks enlightenment on an
Indian ashram, and her father is AWOL (along with Olive's $25.00
entrance fee). Introducing herself, Olive sings about her "friend
the dictionary," which fills in as the significant authority figure
in her life. It also "stays" where her parents do not. In fact,
the production's most tender and affecting song -- occasioned
by "chimerical," from the Greek "chimaira," meaning "existing
only as the product of unchecked imagination: fantastically visionary
or improbable" -- tacitly links the absence of Olive's parents
to the illusory authority of English's most trusted reference
book. Just as her mother's quest for self-knowledge is indefinite,
and the location of her father is unknown (he never turns up),
language habits are moving targets, and durability in language
is an epistemological chimera. (As proof of this fact, the Scripps
National Bee contains on its Web site the following Editorial
Note: "this web page contains the full text of an early 1930s
document chronicling the history of the National Spelling Bee.
Some spellings and usage that appear herein are not standard today.")
We kid ourselves if we think either dictionaries or bees truly
stabilize actual usage.
Rather, what endures is the ideal of Standard
American English, a standard long associated with other social,
indeed national, values. Not coincidentally, these values date
to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when the
first English settlers reached shore in the wake of Cawdrey's
inaugural dictionary. Exhorting disciples to adhere to impossibly
high standards of both linguistic and spiritual conformity, the
Puritans approached language with the same zealous righteousness
with which they approached their religion: in Puritan logotheology,
speaking correct English dovetailed with moral rectitude. As an
added benefit, the intrinsic variability of English spelling --
increasingly preserved and authorized in English dictionaries
-- demanded for its mastery labor redolent of the Puritan work
ethic. The story we tell children about the pilgrims' flight to
religious freedom really ought to include the settlers' pious,
even persecutory, assumptions concerning "right writing."
Instead, we hold spelling bees. The Bee
acknowledges that, despite English's origins in England, the spelling
bee is unique to the United States and its colonial outposts.
First, the production's title -- besides designating a certain
quaint parochialism, and honoring the show's origins in a Massachusetts
workshop -- evokes the first spelling contests staged in settlements
of the colonial U.S. In
addition, the Bee's voluble announcer, and its most ardent
spokesperson (she's a previous winner), represents the colonial
impetus that brought the first bees into being. Having fully internalized
the contest's rules and ideology -- trilling, "that's what's swell
about spelling bees, when winners lose" -- the announcer proctors
the contest, ensuring adherence not only to correct spelling but
also to the rules of the competition. Just as important, she is
later reported (in the post-bee "where-are-they-now" review) to
be pursuing her goal to "bring competitive spelling to the less
fortunate" in Third World and developing nations, all while remaining
Putnam County's "top realtor." As the Putnam Bee's ideologue,
the judge embodies the correlation of spelling bees with the occupation
and distribution of territory.
The 2002 documentary Spellbound
considered the oddity that children of the politically and economically
dispossessed view a triumph in spelling as proof of the American
dream. The film--the Hoop Dreams of spelling--tracked
eight finalists' painstaking preparation for the 1999 national
bee. One of them, Angela, came from a family living and working
on a Texas ranch, having crossed the river from Mexico. Her parents
had yet to learn English. Angela studied by pasting the new words
she learned in crossword patterns on construction paper, and her
brother divulged that, although her father was unlikely to journey
from the ranch where he labors, "it would be closing [sic--closure]
for him to go to Washington and see her" in the final. Another
contestant, from a tony Connecticut prep school, deliberated whether
her au pair should accompany her to Washington that year. Victory
in spelling may be putatively attainable by all, but inequities
were plain to see.
Missing, however, from the nearly exclusive
focus on individual contestants in both the The 25th Annual
Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spellbound is how
spelling bees reward, in bittersweet fashion, good old-fashioned
American individualism. Indeed, where other native varieties of
bees (e.g. sewing, quilting) ask neighbors to pitch in with the
production of essential, mutually valued goods (i.e. clothes,
bedcovers), spelling bees yield only one trophy-holder, at the
other participants' publicized expense. (There is no consensus
among etymologists on the origin of the word "bee" as a gathering
of people to perform a specified act or skill. The insect parallel
is hard to miss, however, since bees work together to complete
a task for benefit of one individual, the queen.) Max Weber once
observed that the kind of work ethic required to master English
spelling also fosters the individual, head-to-head competition
that stimulates capitalism. Perhaps it's appropriate that the
individuals who triumph in the regional bees are rewarded with
a trip to Washington, D.C.; for in spelling bees, Every Child
Gets Left Behind, save one.
Take poor Chip Tolantino in the Putnam
County bee. Last year's winner, he is outdone early on by his
erection, as his arousal destroys his concentration. ("My stiffy
has ruined my spelling," he sings). A stock bit of schoolroom
comedy, it works here to denote the bee's restriction to a particular
phase of pre-adolescence: the time in every boy's life when he
has to learn about the birds and the bees is more or less the
time when he outgrows the spelling bee. Knowing how to spell "omphaloscepsis"
or "tittup" (the word that torments Chip) matters less than whether
he has internalized the contest's rules, or learned what education
theorists call the "hidden curriculum." The patches on his Eagle
Scout uniform display the concepts of the covert syllabus: perseverance,
patriotism, and deference to authority.
But as the musical also reveals, even steadfast
effort and obedience to rules will not always get you what you
want. For one thing, the rules of English spelling are inconsistent,
even mystifying (why is the [ooh] sound in "zacoochie" spelled
with "oo," but "sluice" uses "ui"?); and the guidance offered
by authorities is frequently unhelpful ("Can you use it in a sentence?"
"Yes, please spell 'telephone'"). For another thing, life is unfair.
One contestant is given "phylactery" and another "hospital"--prompting
the musical's one true Broadway showstopper, "Life is Pandemonium."
ESPN execs will say that this disparity
makes for riveting television. English teachers will say that,
where elementary pedagogy cycles between "whole language learning"
(teaching language in context) and "language decoding" (teaching
spelling through phonics), the endurance of spelling tests in
our nation's schools reflects the need to quantify abilities that
are largely unmeasurable. In this era when schools must compete
for federal funding on the basis of national standards and measured
results, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee atones
for the sin of using language to rank and divide ourselves.
Reviews of this show have typically looked
upon it as "the little musical that could." Accounts of the production's
success have assumed that spelling makes unlikely material for
a Broadway hit. In fact, the inherently collaborative aspects
of American musical theater effectively counteract the competitive
individualism of the bee, giving the performance a particular
counterpoint and harmony.
course, every musical demands a love plot, and the Bee
complies with William and Olive. These two contestants court one
another, awkwardly, over word games involving the exchange of
vow(el)s. Olive: "If you switch the first two vowels of my 'Olive,'
you get 'I love.'" William: "If you switch the first two vowels
of 'William,' you get . . .uh . . . 'William.'" The last two contestants
in the competition, they dance with each other, and thus make
cooperative use of William's deft "magic foot." But when Olive
falters on "elanguescence" (from the Latin "elanguescere," meaning
"the gradual loss by the soul of its powers"), William is forced
to choose: the way of connection and cooperation or the way of
competition and individual victory. That William second-guesses
himself for the first time at this moment points up the paradox
of the production: the means the theater medium uses to bring
us together is used in bees to set us apart.
Besides bringing William and Olive together,
the musical also offsets the divisions demanded by bees by bringing
several audience members onstage as contestants. A recent New
York Times article cited this practice as evidence of the
current vogue for audience participation (also seen in Spamalot
and Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance!). The practice
sometimes leads to surprises. In the performance I attended, the
last audience participant onstage spelled correctly the word she
was expected, in effect scripted, to miss. It was a nonce word,
in fact, and while not Middle English, a word more aptly culled
from early American: a Nantucket whaling term which, at the musical's
behest, I shall not repeat. That a nonce word -- a word known
to have appeared in print only once -- should have failed to guarantee
the contestant's ejection demonstrates the possibility of people
connecting even to words that don't circulate widely in society.
But perhaps more profoundly, the production had to improvise around
the audience member's unexpected spelling success. Her momentary
coup led to the kind of free play and improvised action that characterize
the theater and also counter the idea, and ideal, of invariable,
Another way the show could have challenged
the values implied by spelling bees would have been to cast a
speller who didn't fit the stereotype, such as an athlete who
was also good at spelling. Besides William and his "magic foot"
(truly the only lithe thing about him), the only contestant said
to possess any genuine athletic ability is Marcy Park -- who,
in addition to running track, speaks six languages, performs ballet,
and, to the audience's delight, takes over playing at one point
from the orchestra's pianist. Marcy represents the prototypical
well-rounded student, and, as a Korean-American, is a caricature
of the Asian overachiever. (Despite the dominance of Middle Eastern
competitors in recent runnings of the national bee, the musical
doesn't feature a contestant of either Indian or Pakistani descent.)
When Marcy follows up her impressive exhibition of her skills
by defiantly throwing the competition -- declaring her aim "not
to live up to expectations" -- the purpose of casting stereotypes
for contestants becomes clear. The audience is meant to observe
this typecasting as another form of standardization, and to appreciate
the characters' refusal to conform.
In this way, the Bee does much
more than answer our need to see our inner nerds rewarded. By
inviting the audience to cheer for the characters' collective
non-conformity (in lieu of rooting them on to individual victory),
the production challenges the ideal of standardization. Finally,
it also encourages us to appreciate the shared experience of language
through song. Thus the finale, which returns all the players to
the stage, not only recognizes the combined efforts of the Bee's
ensemble but also acknowledges the audience's participation, as
the performers hail the spectators on each flank of the three-sided
Interestingly enough, bright, 13-year-old
Aliya Deri, runner-up to Anurag Kashyap in the 2005 national spelling
bee, lost the competition on "roscian," from the Latin name Quintus
Roscius Gallus, a famous Roman actor, and meaning "characteristic
of Roscius as an actor; famous or eminent in respect of acting."
Apparently, the conjunction of spelling and things theatrical
remains a stretch for many, including those critics who have treated
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as a novelty
piece, an aberration in an otherwise serious season. In fact,
this musical is as sober an inquiry into native piety as the Pulitzer-winning
play Doubt, and it deserves unqualified accolades even
beyond its two Tony Awards.