Ten years ago, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an interactive musical, stormed Broadway, capturing six Tony nominations and a Grammy nomination for its songs. The performance is a perfect storm of improv comedy, theatrical flare and gleeful musical numbers. This month, the musical is being staged for the first time in Central Oregon. Recently, the Source sat down with director Karen Sipes, a local actress and vocal coach herself, to hear her insights into the play, and musicals in general.
Source Weekly: Certainly for the percentage of performances in town, there seems to be a large number of musicals—Beauty & the Beast earlier this year, Les Mis last year and Avenue Q is coming up.
Karen Sipes: I definitively see that trend continuing. Bend has a lot of talented singers and performers, and they are passionate.
SW: I suppose that a musical about a spelling bee seemed inevitable. There was the book—and movie—Bee Season, and the documentary Spellbound, and even Bad Words, a recent big screen comedy with Jason Bateman. Why do you think there is such a cultural fascination with spelling bees?
KS: We are fascinated with kids who have an extraordinary talent in one area. And a lot of the population are bad spellers. It is a little like the Olympics. You see people doing what you can't imagine doing.
SW: Okay, I can understand that appeal of the subject matter, but why a musical?
KS: The musical lends itself to a great deal of humor. When you take a thought and put into song, or when you put music to [an idea] you put in all these elements of beauty or sadness. It just makes for an enjoyable experience.
There has been a buzz about this play for a while. It was on the top 10 list of Broadway plays, and when I heard the music from it, I was absolutely enchanted. It's one of the funniest musicals I've seen in a long time—a lot of pathos, and touching moments; the characters are just really unique and quirky.
SW: Maybe this seems like a simple question, but why is it funny? Is it funny in the way that many other contemporary musicals are, like Book of Mormon or Avenue Q (which Sipes is directing in a few months), which is from its shock value.
KS: It is funny because the characters are incredibly quirky. This is adolescent angst at its best, and we're using adults to play children. Each has a well-defined character, and each has something quirky. These are almost caricatures. It is nine really defined characters and there is something about each one that goes a little beyond the norm in some way.
SW: Nine! That's a lot. What was the casting process like?
KS: We had a lot of talent come out. Because I am a vocal instructor, I listened to vocal potential, and expression, as well as a certain amount of comedic timing.
There were nine people that fit—people who can vocally carry out the roles, have a comic sense of timing, and who can bring a certain amount of tenderness or pathos when it is needed. These are nine lead characters. There is no chorus. There are no bit characters. The talent base in Bend is pretty remarkable. We found that in Les Mis, when 170 some people auditioned.
25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
2nd Street Theater, 220 NE Lafayette
7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 3 pm Sundays, through April 18.
$22 adults, $19 students/seniors