Will "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" be the next little Off Broadway show that conquers the Great White Way?
The new musical about orthographically talented kids competing to see who can spell words like "strabismus" opens on Broadway this week with high hopes after transferring from a rapturously received run at Off Broadway nonprofit house Second Stage.
"Spelling Bee," written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin and conceived by Rebecca Feldman, is widely perceived as this year's parallel to "Avenue Q."
That show was considered a risky proposition when talk of a Broadway move first surfaced, but has since won a Tony for musical, recouped its costs and regularly plays to sellout crowds. Both shows are comic tuners with $3.5 million budgets, no stars and small casts ("Bee" has nine thesps, "Q" has seven) that transferred to Broadway on the strength of giddy reviews.
"Avenue Q" went on to trump the bigger-budget "Wicked" at the Tonys. In a neat role reversal this year, "Wicked" producer David Stone plays the scrappy underdog, as "Spelling Bee," which he also produces, obviously wouldn't mind taking down the much-hyped juggernaut "Spamalot."
Years ago, musicals like "Urinetown," "Avenue Q" and "Spelling Bee," which have quirky comic sensibilities that read better in an intimate house, might have been content with a commercial Off Broadway run. But now, because of the quirky economics of Off Broadway, where ticket revenues aren't keeping pace with rising costs, bigger venues beckon.
"Avenue Q" producer Robyn Goodman said when it transferred, "Looking at the numbers, it just didn't make any sense to go to a 499-seat theater."
"I think the trend started really with 'Rent,' but with 'Urinetown' and 'Taboo' and 'Brooklyn' and 'Avenue Q,' you're seeing musicals that traditionally wouldn't have come to the Broadway market but now are," says producer Jack Dalgleish.
Dalgleish's now-closed musical "Zanna Don't!" lost money Off Broadway last season but is eyeing a Broadway transfer for 2006, despite the fact that weekly running costs would rise from $55,000 to $340,000.
Matthew Rego of the Araca Group, a producer of "Wicked" and "Urinetown," isn't so sure these shows are all connected. "I don't necessarily think it's a trend that all small musicals are going to go to Broadway, because it's a complicated decision," he says.
Regarding the "Urinetown" transfer, he acknowledged, "Ten years ago or 15 years ago, it would have seemed crazy, and it was probably crazy when we did it. Has 'Urinetown' paved the way for other shows like 'Avenue Q' and 'Spelling Bee' to move to Broadway? I think a little bit."
Stone doesn’t think there’s much of a trend here, saying that aside from budget size, all of these shows are very different and that "there have always been smaller Broadway musicals."
"(‘Spelling Bee’) felt like it belonged not so much to Broadway or Off Broadway, it belonged in this kind of space," he says, referring to the 680-seat Circle in the Square theater.
Not only do the economics work, he and his team says, but the venue’s peculiarities actually enhance the show's comic sensibility and the theatergoing experience overall.
Though Stone and director James Lapine were at first dubious about the venue, they later changed their minds.
"All of its weaknesses seemed like strengths," Lapine says.
Unlike every other Broadway theater, the Circle in the Square has a very long thrust stage with seats that curve around it -- "theater in the U," as sound designer Dan Moses Schreier puts it. The arrangement creates intimacy -- set designer Beowulf Boritt says most seats are closer to the stage than they were at Second Stage, a more traditional proscenium theater.
At both Circle in the Square and Second Stage, Stone points out, the audience is looking down at the stage, which makes the adult actors "more believeable as children."
Boritt has decked out the Circle in the Square house as a middle school gym, complete with a basketball hoop and banners touting the fictional Putnam Valley Piranhas' various accomplishments, such as honorable mention in the 1972 state luge competition.
Putting "spelling in the temple of sports," Boritt says, both heightens the sense of competition and creates a comic contrast.
"The whole set is my personal revenge against the jocks in my high school who got all the funding when the drama club got nothing," he adds.
For the downstairs lobby, Boritt had elementary schoolchildren create artwork and posters advertising events such as school elections and synchronized swimming tryouts (Also look for childhood photos of the cast and creative team, including a slick-haired Finn.)
This concept, Boritt and Stone say, fits perfectly with Circle in the Square. Built in the early 1970s, the theater has a lack of any kind of adornment typical of most other small Broadway houses. Its drab, institutional feel helps the show satirize the process of students becoming immersed in a rigorous and at times laughably impractical field of study. Ceiling art and chandeliers would have given the wrong idea.
"It's not a rococo show," Lapine says. If they had gone "into these theaters that are very ornate, I think it would have been harder to cut through it and make you forget you're in a theater. This feels more like an experience."
As for marketing, Stone says he's going for younger auds with ads in the Onion, but is not neglecting traditional outlets such as the New York Times and the New Yorker. And while he is considering teaming with subject-specific orgs such as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, he is hesitant about conveying such a spelling-centric image.
"The show's about spelling in one sense, but it's not about spelling" in another, he says. It's about "how these kids become adults" and "accepting losing or failure or disappointment."
And what about the tour?
Unless the show pulls an "Avenue Q" and sets up a permanent home in Las Vegas, Lapine and Boritt will have to adapt it for a traditional proscenium house. Tour plans aren't in place yet, but regardless of what the team decides, they hope the show can keep the intimacy and the playful concept of the Circle in the Square production.
"Look, it's a Broadway show, I mean for it to be a Broadway show," Stone says, "but it doesn't feel like going to Broadway."