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They'll be stopping by for a spell

Broadway's `Putnam County Spelling Bee' continues its improbable rats-to-riches run at the Wadsworth.

May 20, 2007|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

New York — SARAH SALTZBERG's purse is your typical overstuffed cross-section of a fast-paced New York life: compact case, expired Metrocards, several months' worth of unsorted receipts. Amid the clutter, though, is a tattered piece of paper, stained by what looks like a lipstick explosion and folded for so long that it's falling apart at the creases.

In childlike scrawl, a phone number is written over several times. The handwriting is that of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, for whose daughter Saltzberg once served as weekend nanny; the number belongs to Broadway composer William Finn.

Saltzberg has good reason to tote around this bedraggled talisman, as she has done for nearly five years: It represents not only her personal ticket from sketchy downtown improv to Broadway but also the fluky, serendipitous rise of the audience-interactive stunt "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E" from the rat-infested Lower East Side performance space where Saltzberg and her buddies first staged it in 2002 to 2005's Tony-bedecked "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," with a score by Finn, a script by Rachel Sheinkin and direction by James Lapine.

The hit show now has a sit-down company in Chicago and a national tour, and it makes its L.A. debut with the original Broadway cast at the Wadsworth Theatre this week.

This wasn't your average downtown transfer. "Urinetown," which debuted at the same rat-hole (the since-razed Present Company Theatorium) en route to Broadway, was always a meta-traditional musical. "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," on the other hand, began as a character-driven improv conceived by Rebecca Feldman, head of a troupe called the Farm.

"I'd been reading the book 'Bee Season,' " Feldman recalled, "and I thought it would be fun to put on a spelling bee, have adults play kids and have the audience interact." Beyond the fun factor, Feldman thought the piece would offer a chance to "look at how much competition we're put into as kids."

The show's initial incarnation featured larger-than-life characters who would survive to the final version -- Jay Riess' officious vice principal, Mr. Panch; Saltzberg's overachieving little sparkplug, Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre; and Dan Fogler's arrogant, sinus-impaired slob, William Barfee, for which he would later win a Tony -- and a few in-your-face, on-the-nose songs by Michael Friedman ("I'm going to win this bee today!" was a typical offering). It also closed with a jokey rendition of "Luck Be a Lady."

"When Wendy saw it," Saltzberg recalled, "she said, 'It's great, I love it, but you cannot end the show with 'Luck Be a Lady.' It has to be a real musical.' That's when she gave me Bill's number."

Wasserstein wasn't sure Finn would write it himself, since most of his work had been intensely autobiographical ("Falsettos," "A New Brain"). But she figured that since he teaches musical theater at NYU, he might know an up-and-coming composer for the job. When Finn saw a video of "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," though, he was hooked.

"I thought, 'I've been waiting for this my whole life!' " declared Finn, a bittersweet bear of a man, reclining in the cozy green room of Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. "I love competition, and here's a competition for smart people. I always thought if I were on 'Survivor,' they would throw me off before the first elimination because I'd be so annoying -- unless they needed someone to write a sestina. So here finally was a chance to write a sestina for 'Survivor.' I was totally thrilled."

Unpleasant memories

HE brought in a former student and NYU teaching colleague, playwright Sheinkin, to write the book for a workshop at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts. The way the creative team describes it, it was a trial by fire -- or rather, ice.

"We were stuck in January and February up in the Berkshires, and it was really snowy," Finn recounted. "I felt like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' I really felt I was going crazy. From the minute we woke up, we were living with the people we were writing with -- it was just misery, misery, misery. To think that this joyous thing came out of it is startling."

"It was like giving birth," conceded Saltzberg, a petite but steely blond. There was another reason for the intensity of the labor: "Not only were we creating together, but we were dealing with stuff from our childhood. The emotions that it brought up were sort of raw. That, plus it being the middle of winter and all our free time being spent with each other.... What made the battles OK were that they came from a passion to make the show better."

"We all had to learn to negotiate the writing," Feldman said diplomatically. "We were all writing, even though there was one writer actually typing it all down."

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