Eleanor Hedges Duroy

From left: Music Director and Pit Lead Jacob Johnson `23, Stage Manager David Gales `23 and Director Lucy Polyak.

Cadence Chen, Staff Writer

This is the first installment in a three-part series chronicling the casting, rehearsal and opening of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Read the rest of the series by following the “Making a Musical” tag at the bottom of the page. 

Director Lucy Polyak `23 held auditions for the musical comedy “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as a part of her mentored advanced project (MAP) during the first week of October. For a cast of nine, 30 students auditioned, which Polyak said is the highest number of auditionees for a production this semester at the College.

Stage Manager David Gales `23 and Music Director and Pit Lead Jacob Johnson `23 joined her for the audition process and the three made casting decisions together. Polyak referred to them as her “co-conspirators” to the students auditioning. Claire Liddle `23, who was not present at the auditions, is the house manager for the production.

While Polyak knew she wanted to direct a light-hearted, morally positive musical, she was especially attracted to “Putnam County Spelling Bee” for its small cast size. Given time restraints, she found that the music in the show was interesting without being too difficult to master in a two-month period.

During auditions, she was looking for people who were making “really big choices” and were willing to be silly. After students sang a song of their choice, Polyak asked them to sing a rendition of a song in a different character to test their flexibility and observe the choices they decided to make. Some were asked to read aloud a McDonalds meme.

Have you ever met someone who had a good experience in middle school, like a univer- sally, overall positive experi- ence? Of course you haven’t. It’s fucking miserable.

— David Gales `23, Stage Manager

While the line “there are no small roles, only small actors” may sound like an overused turn of phrase, Gales, who holds that the line “is not true,” said that there are “literally” no small roles (or actors) in this show especially. All the actors will be on stage for most, if not all, of the show.

With a strong cast, this show could still be strong with “just $50 and a MIDI keyboard,” said Jacobson, who has led the pit orchestra in a high school production of the show and was music director for a production of the musical “I Dig You” last year, which Polyak acted in.

The group was impressed and expressed excitement over the talent showcased during auditions. Jacobson has worked out many possible permutations of the show’s casting.

“We could run two nights back to back and have a completely different cast between those two nights with no repeats, and they would both be great shows,” they said. The team ultimately had to choose nine actors for the cast.

A Broadway and Tony award- winning production, “The Putnam Spelling Bee,” originally created by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, follows six eccentric middle schoolers and three adults as the adolescents compete in the titular spelling bee.

At some middle and high schools, like Jacobson’s, the original musical was eschewed in favor of the junior version, which changed vulgar songs like “My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” to “My Unfortunate Distraction (Chip’s Lament).” Jacobson said they would not have agreed to be a part of this project if they were putting on the junior version.

Recent media aimed towards an adult audience, like the TV shows PEN15 and Big Mouth — where adults portray middle school students — may point towards a cultural fascination with this particular period in people’s lives.

“Have you ever met someone who had a good experience in middle school? Like a universally, overall positive experience?” Gales asked. “Of course you haven’t. It’s fucking miserable.”

Polyak said that the junior version takes away a key aspect of the show as adolescents are at the boundary of childhood and adulthood.

She said, “It’s a very scary feeling to have to cross that bridge into adulthood, and I still feel like I haven’t fully grasped it some days.”

At 21 years of age (“That’s 12 backwards!” Polyak added), and as she is preparing to leave the Grinnell community, Polyak is thinking about what it means to belong, a theme that recurs throughout the show.

Though Polyak and Gales said that “Putnam County Spelling Bee” was a staple show for many school and community theaters, Polyak did not see a production of the show until June of 2021 at the City Circle Acting Company in her hometown of Iowa City. She will be borrowing props from this production.

She watched this at a time when she said COVID-19 felt like it was in a transitional period — with some saying it was over and others refuting it — and when she had felt a longing for belonging.

“The spelling bee is where they have found value in their lives,” said Polyak about the show’s characters. “They have found that when they excel there, they feel like they belong for a minute.”

She then cites a line that is repeated in the show: “The best spellers don’t necessarily win,” a crucial reminder that success and winning are not always the same thing.

Though Polyak is working with the understanding that her MAP will eventually lead to a grade from her advisor and producer of the show, Professor of Theatre Craig Quintero, a yellow dinosaur named “Lugubrious Baker Pineapple,” or “Goob” for short, rested on the audition table to remind her that she is supposed to be having fun in the midst of this ambitious undertaking.

“I did not have to do a MAP to graduate. I did not have to do a MAP to this scale to graduate,” she said. “Whenever I need to, we just make some eye contact, and I’ve reset myself.”

Rehearsals began on Oct. 6. The show is set to open at the Grinnell Area Arts Council Theatre on Dec. 9 of this year and will run until Dec. 11.