You don't often come across a musical that would be better off without its music. After all, what's the point of making something into a musical if the music isn't the best part (or at least a vital component of the whole)? Musicals with excellent scores and filmsy books are pretty easy to find; musicals whose books and scores are both poor-to-terrible are regrettably common; musicals whose scores and books are equally solid are precious, precious treasures. But the good book/lousy score combo is relatively rare. And it's one of the things that makes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee such an oddity on Broadway.
Spelling Bee is not, of course, new on Broadway -- it competed at the Tony Awards in 2005, and won a few, including one for Rachel Sheinkin's book. (The show also has a "conceived by" credit, for Rachel Feldman, and an "additional material by" credit for Jay Weiss.) Since then it's been puttering along in the cozy Circle in the Square theatre, next door to Wicked, and I only just got around to seeing it last week. This may surprise those of you who know of my personal history as a middle-school spelling bee competitor -- people expected me to be first in line for this show when it opened on Broadway. It had good buzz! It was a musical! It was about a spelling bee! What's not to love? But I was in no hurry to buy a ticket, for the same reason Pee Wee Herman doesn't stick around to watch the movie based on his life at the end of Pee Wee's Big Adventure. I don't have to see it. I lived it.
Now that I have seen the show at last, I can confirm that the book deserved its Tony Award. It's funny, sharp and original, and it has the irresistible momentum of any spelling-based competition -- at least until the songs, by William Finn, interrupt. They're totally boring. Overthought, underwritten and so forgettable you can actually forget them while they're still happening. The show hums along, skipping lightly from joke to joke, held aloft by appealing performances, pulsing with spontaneity, and then a song starts and you can feel the energy drain from the audience. (In fact, from most seats you can actually watch people get restless, thanks to the shape of the theatre.)
When it's not singing, Spelling Bee works hard to win your heart. Even before you enter the theatre, the branding draws you in: the lobby is decorated like a high school cafeteria, with hand-lettered posters announcing meetings of various clubs and samples of kids' artwork. The thrust-stage theatre is set up to look like a middle-school gymnasium, complete with basketball hoop. It's all very endearing. And although the original cast is long gone, the current performers are a likable bunch. Finn's songs sounded best when performed by Jenny Barber, extremely winsome as Olive Ostrovsky, and Angelica-Lee Aspiras, understudying the role of Rona Lisa Peretti (the bee's host) at the performance I saw. Also terrific: Daniel Pearce, appealingly loose as vice-principal/bee pronouncer Douglas Panch, and Stanley Bahorek, utterly vivid and adorable as Leaf Coneybear (which is my favorite character name ever).
All this is very entertaining, but I'm not convinced it's more entertaining as a full-fledged Broadway show than it would have been (and probably was) in its original form, as an improv-based play. The show's best moments occur spontaneously, or are calculated to seem spontaneous -- it's disappointing to see the last audience member turned contestant leave the stage. The choreography seems made up on the spot, and I couldn't help thinking that I'd find the musical numbers far more interesting if I thought they actually were spontaneous creations. But aside from the moment, late in the show, when an understudy took an apparently underrehearsed turn at the piano and everyone onstage, including the conductor, struggled to stifle laughter, the songs evoked the one aspect of my spelling-bee experience I'd rather not relive: the long, dull stretches between my turns at the microphone, when I had to sit politely and find something for my brain to do. And so I was ready for the show to end long before it actually did (although my flagging interest was revived by the appearance of Jesus, offering words of wisdom I plan to take to heart). And as much as I appreciated Spelling Bee's intelligence and heart, I suspect I might have liked C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E better.
I mentioned the audience participation element of the show, and I should note that I did submit my name to be considered. I thought it might make for interesting blogging. I didn't tell them about my blog, of course, nor did I disclose my National Spelling Bee credentials, but I still wasn't chosen. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned copy-editing?