Singing the Standards
By Gwynn Dujardin
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling
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
The 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
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.
Of 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, unerring
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 seating area.
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.