Stakes Are High at The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Get your dictionaries ready!

Was your school spelling bee stressful and highly competitive? Join us for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee March 2-5 to see what competitive spelling really looks like! The 2023 Upper School musical is directed by Mariko Watt with student Sadie Schoenberger ’25 as Assistant Director. Get your tickets now for this Poly favorite!

A-L-U-M-N-I Connection

Poly has a special attachment to Spelling Bee. Rebecca Feldman ’90 is the creator and director of the Broadway show, which won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Cast.

Dan Fogler ’94, who originated the role of Mr. Barfée, one of the zany spelling bee contestants, won a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical, a Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Award in 2005.

Adrianna Neal in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Adrianna Neal ’23 as Rona Lisa Peretti
Bee Scars Become Inspiration

Feldman remembers being good at spelling bees in grade school. “Then,” Feldman recalled, “I was in my school spelling bee and I got out on the word ‘bruise’ and I came in second. It was a moment I never forgot. I came to learn that I was not alone in this. Everyone remembers the word they go out on. Spelling bees are a uniquely American and very relatable event that apparently has scarred many of us! So it seemed like a great premise for a show.”

Feldman, who is currently working with Jay Reiss on developing a Spelling Bee Game Show for TV,  has seen many productions of Spelling Bee over the years from high school to college to community theatre. “It’s always a very heartwarming experience. I love seeing how different people interpret the characters and I love hearing the songs sung live. The I Love You Song always gets me!”

A few days before the first Poly performance, Feldman held a Zoom meeting with the cast. She generously shared her time, asking each actor what character they were playing and if they had any questions about their role. She admitted that it still makes her mad that Olive comes in second and told stories about the use of “guest spellers” in productions.

Mr. Barfée’s Advice to Mr. Barfée

Fogler created Mr. Barfée for the Off OFF Broadway improv show called Crepuscule, which eventually went to Broadway and became the Spelling Bee musical. “The whole process took about five years,” Fogler said. “I was on Broadway with the show for a year. The Mr. Barfée voice at the beginning was more nasally and scratchy… but as time went on it morphed into the voice you hear on the album, mostly because it was easier to sing that way.”

Dan Fogler
Dan Fogler ’94

What advice would Fogler give Zeke Wise ’24 who is playing Mr. Barfée? “Mr. Barfée is bullied everywhere else in life,” Fogler said, “but when he is at the bee he gets to be a bully. But he’s not good at it. And over the course of the show, his heart melts for Olive and he gains empathy for the other spellers. Break a leg! Or a magic foot!”

Wise responded, “Firstly, I am so honored that Mr. Fogler took the time to offer me advice about playing his character. In terms of what he said, I try to play Barfée as a boy who slowly softens from a bully as the musical goes on, and using Mr. Fogler’s advice, I can channel the energy of that shift more clearly now. I love playing Barfée, it’s such a fun role, and I have a big song and dance number which I enjoy very much.”

(Left to right) Zeke Wise ’24, Genevieve Fitzpatrick ’24, Cooper Flinn-Beane ’23, Mia Gordon ’23, and Natasha Ellis ’23.

Fogler, who just finished filming Verona, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, had some advice for other aspiring actors.Become a triple threat. Read Uta Hagen.  Learn to act, sing, and dance. if you can’t do one, fake it. ACT like you can.  You might just win a Tony. Go see theater. Make a list of your favorite shows and films and actors and watch everything they do. Gather like-minded friends and create showcases for your specific talents. That’s how Spelling Bee was made!”

Collaborating on Crafting the Creative Vision

How many high school sophomores have the opportunity to be assistant director of a musical? “Since Ms. Watt came to Poly last year, assistant directing under her became something I knew I wanted to do before I graduated,” said Assistant Director Sadie Schoenberger ’25. “A joy has been getting to see the show come together in the way it has, and to be a part of that process. Since the first reading, our actors have received countless blocking instructions and notes from Ms. Watt and I, had dozens of rehearsals and runs, and spent time after school and on their own time learning their lines, dances, and songs. It’s been exciting to see the show continue to get better every run, and even more exciting to see the moments Ms. Watt and I envisioned on stage. For me, I began to have a clear vision of the show once we got through blocking the first half of the script a few weeks in; the first time I was able to sit in the theatre and see each scene I or Ms. Watt had worked on all together without stops.”

Assistant Director Sadie Schoenberger ’25 with Upper School Musical Director Mariko Watt

“My favorite moments of this experience have been sitting with Ms. Watt and working with her to plan, brainstorm, and teach parts of the show,” Schoenberger added. “Working with her has been an experience I’ve enjoyed just as much if not more than performing, and something I’d love to do again.”

Upper School musical: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
(Left to right) Katie Lopez ’23, Zeke Wise ’24, Genevieve Fitzpatrick ’24, Mia Gordon ’23, and Natasha Ellis ’23.

An interesting aspect of this production is that actors have learned more than one role with one cast on Thursday evening and actors in other roles for the Friday through Sunday shows. Donald Shields ’25 plays Chip for the “understudy run of the show.” “I’d say the most difficult part about him is hitting that A4 in his song. My main cast role is Carl Dad, Schwarzy’s overbearing father, and his is a pretty simple role to play, nothing really difficult. But between the two, just memorizing and playing two very different characters is the most challenging part.”

Isabelle Gerling ’25, who plays Olive Ostrovsky, added,Being an understudy for one of the main roles has made my experience more challenging because I always had to learn two parts. I have loved the process because it has given me the opportunity to play a main role.” Katie Lopez ’23 also plays Olive in the Friday through Sunday performances.

Advice for Aspiring Writers

For students who are aspiring writers, Feldman shared this:

“My advice to writers is to write, write, write and then rewrite. Hone your craft. If you want to write for musicals, find collaborators from your peer group. Seek out mentors. Put on shows however you can, wherever you can. Whether it is on YouTube or TikTok or a dingy black box somewhere in Brooklyn or the sidewalk. Aspiring to write for Broadway is great, but I think more importantly aspire to write the stories you have to tell. That only you can tell. And those stories will find their way to the world one way or another!”

Arrow pattern purple

Families are asked to register to attend our Upper School Musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, on March 2, 3, or 4 at 7:00 PM, or March 5 at 2:00 PM in the Richard Perry Theatre. Tickets are $10 for students/children over 5 and $15 for adults. Check out the program for more info!

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