The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a one-act musical comedy conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers around a fictional spelling bee set in a middle school where six young people in the throes of puberty, overseen by three quirky grown-ups who barely managed to escape childhood themselves, learn that winning isn't everything and that losing doesn't necessarily make you a loser.
The 2005 TONY Award-winning show is a hilarious tale featuring real audience members on stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young overachievers, a charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.
Just as the early 1870s saw a peak in Bee popularity when The Hoosier Schoolmaster was published, so too did we in the early 21st century. Within a period of just a few years, there has been an upsurge of Bee-related activity in American culture, beginning perhaps with the 2000 documentary Spellbound, a film which follows ten top spellers from around the country as they prepare for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The same year, the novel Bee Season—about a young spelling prodigy and her troubled family—was published, and subsequently turned into a film in 2005. Around the same time, another film—Akeelah and the Bee—was released in theatres. And in print, several fiction and non-fiction books were published. Perhaps related to this increase in activity was the beginning of Bee public broadcast; in 1994, ESPN began broadcasting the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And in 2006, ABC booted the Miss America pageant, yet still broadcast the final rounds of the Bee. The Internet has also been home to Bee activity in the early 21st century—students have begun studying and quizzing each other over the Web.
But at the same time, there has been a steady decrease of language faculties in American culture—we no longer use the kinds of words that we did even 50 years ago, and the complexity in thought that produces such language is dissipating. What, then, is the cause for this swell of activity around spelling competitions? The following are some questions to consider and reflect upon:
1. What are some possible reasons for the upsurge in Bee activity in 21st
2. How has the print medium affected the way the general public has engaged with the Scripps National Spelling Bee? And the medium of multimedia?
3. Which others aspects of American culture has multimedia had a direct effect on?
4. Of books, film, television, theater and the Internet, which might have the most influential affect on our interest in and engagement with spelling bees? Why?
5. Is the Scripps National Spelling Bee a form of reality television? If so, how does that change or shape our interest in the Bee?
“Best of the Bee”
The Beginnings of Spelling Bees
spelling bee is an American folk tradition with roots in the Puritans’ landing
on Plymouth Rock. Through the 1700s, spelling bees became part of the Colonial
education. By the early 1800s, spelling matches became social events; without
televisions and computers, teenagers would flock to the schoolhouse on winter
evenings for a lively spelling bee. Bees became so much fun, in fact, that Puritans
dubbed them “spelling schools” in fear that they otherwise appeared
the Colonial period in New England passed, spelling contests slowly fell
out of fashion, yet at the same time grew as lower class families traveled
West; being able to spell correctly was a symbol of status. Through the Civil
War, spelling felt old-fashioned, yet picked up in popularity again in 1871
when the novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster, a story about a child in
a spelling match, was first published. The success of the novel propelled bees
into vogue, thus setting off the “epidemic” of spelling matches
in the 1870s.
another brief hiatus, spelling bees were once more wildly popular in
the first decade of the 20th century; in June of 1908, the first nationwide
bee was held, leading eventually to the 1925 Louisville Courier-Journal bee—the
forerunner to the Scripps National Bee.
Origin of the Word “Bee”
word bee in early American life referred specifically to social
events in which the entire community came together—like bumblebees in a hive—for
a common goal, as in a quilting bee or a barn raising bee or
a corn husking bee. The earliest known example in print is a spinning
bee, in 1769. Other early occurrences include a husking bee (1816), apple
bee (1827), and logging bee (1836). The phrase spelling bee seems
to be specifically American; it first appeared in print in 1875, but
it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before
Those who used the word, including most early students of language, assumed that it was the same word as the one used to refer to the bee insect. They thought this particular meaning had been inspired by the obvious semblance between these human gatherings and the social nature of a beehive. But in recent years scholars have rejected this explanation, suggesting instead that this bee is a completely different word.
The word may come from the Middle English word bene, meaning "a prayer" or "a favor" (which is related to the more familiar word boon). In England, a dialect form of this word, been or bean, refers to "voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task." (Webster's Third New International Dictionary). Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.
A note from Director Dawn Monique Williams
When I was first introduced to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, I wasn’t that thrilled with the musical. As a director, I want to create dynamic stage pictures, work with actors on heighted and challenging language, and tease out extreme psychological desires. In my mind, Spelling Bee was too simple: six kids on bleachers with a microphone. It seemed like there wasn’t much for a director to do; there isn’t much of a plot and it’s not a big song and dance musical. However, the more I read and reread the script, and listened to the soundtrack, I realized something very important about what makes Spelling Bee a great musical. It is about a group of ostracized young people who are facing adversity in their social and home lives, desperate to find love, acceptance, and the place were they belong. That is exactly how I ended up in theatre as a kid. I found a community of people, “drama nerds” or “theatre geeks,” who I shared something in common with, who didn’t mock me for my differences, but embraced me for them. Spelling Bee is about community; being part of a community that allows you to find your inner strength or voice. While “Why We Like Spelling,” is a song that was eventually cut from the musical, the lyric, “We love spelling. It makes us feel normal,” says so much about a person’s desire to fit in. I find it uplifting that each of us can find a place that gives us the freedom to be ourselves. For me it’s in theatre, but maybe it’s sports, choir, math or science, or just maybe it’s spelling.
P.S. While working on Spelling Bee, I found plenty of opportunity for creating dynamic stage pictures, to work with challenging language, and these characters have very strong objectives. Hope you enjoy the show.
Speller: William Barfeé
Age, Grade: 12, Sixth Grade
School: Cold Spring County Day School
William Morris Barfee participated in the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and would have gone on to Nationals, if not for an unfortunate incident with his peanut allergy. In his free time, he enjoys his Sea Anemone collection he keeps in his basement, reading various books on science (his favorite type being human biology), playing video games on his Playstation 3 and practicing spelling with his real mom, Joan.
Speller: Leaf Coneybear
Age, Grade: 10, Fifth Grade
School: Home schooled
Leaf Coneybear lives in Basin District with his parents and six brothers and sisters, where he is home schooled. Leaf Coneybear is overjoyed to be participating in this year’s Putnam County Spelling Bee. When he’s not spelling Leaf enjoys drawing/coloring, playing outside, and reading comic books. Though he seems less confident than the other spellers, Leaf Coneybear does have a secret weapon…
Speller: Olive Ostrovsky
Age, Grade: 10, Fifth Grade
School: Garrison Elementary School
Olive Ostrovsky is an avid speller and enjoys playing scrabble. Her favorite book is
Where the Red Fern Grows and she is obsessed with the Harry Potter series. Olive
loves to dance. She can be found interpretive dancing to Hannah Montana and Michael Jackson. Olive also knits. She has made jumpsuits for all of her stuffed animals.
Olive’s favorite foods include chocolate chip muffins, blackberries, and green Spanish
olives. She hopes to travel the world, just like her mom, and to learn Hindi and
Speller: Marcy Park
Age, Grade: 10, Sixth Grade
School: Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows
Marcy Park is, as she writes, “pretty good at a lot of thing.” She can speak six languages, she plays soccer and hockey, she can twirl a baton with fire, and she plays piano and violin. She has received a black belt in karate, she skipped 4th and 5th grade, and is on her way to becoming the youngest high school student in Parochial school history. She was baptized into the Christian faith when she was born and ever since has gone to church every Sunday. Marcy started spelling competitively when she was in 2nd grade. After winning her first Bee, her parents insisted on her continued application in the sport. What a lot of people don’t know about her is that she loves to bake and sit down with a good book. She also loves to listen to Christian rock music and dance around her room.
Speller: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre
Age, Grade: 9, Fourth Grade
School: Magna Magnet Grammar School
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre is a vivacious nine year old Gemini who knows what she wants: for you to love her, America! Logan is a political machine who wants fairness and equality for everyone regardless or age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. She wants to be the best for America and, more importantly, her dads. Her two fathers, whom she affectionately refers to as Carl Dad and Dan Dad, want Logan to be the best at everything. Common to her zodiac, Logan is nervous, tense, cunning, and inquisitive. She practices yoga, though she is still working on her breathing. In the future, Logan hopes to win the spelling bee and then go on to a university that places in the top three on the Princeton Review. Also, she hopes to be the first female president and show those sexist, homophobic pigs what’s what.
Speller: Charlito “Chip” Tolentino
Age, Grade: 13, Seventh Grade
School: Putnam Academy
Chip is a die-hard Red Sox fan whose favorite activities include baseball, soccer, karate,
and bug-collecting. He is also currently taking piano lessons. His favorite subject at
school is language arts, and he plans to either become an English teacher or a major
league baseball player one day. He spends his free time “chilling” with friends, having
fun studying with mom, or entertaining his pet guppy, Chuck.
In several sections above, I pull directly from James Maguire’s book American Bee: the National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds (listed below). Other references include the following:
Alpha Dictionary. <http://www.alphadictionary.com/blog/?p=10>
Craigie, William A. and James R. Hulbert, eds. A Dictionary of American
of Chicago Press, 1944.
Matthews, Mitford M. ed. A Dictionary of Americanisms. Univ. of Chicago
Maguire, James. American Bee: the National Spelling Bee and the Culture
of Word Nerds.
Rodale Inc, 2006.
Mencken, H.L. The American Language. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1938 (suppl. I, 1945: suppl. II, 1948).
Music Theatre International. <http://mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000336>
Scripps National Spelling Bee. < http://www.spellingbee.com/origin-term-spelling-bee>