September 23, 2019

Composer’s hit musical spells success ‘B-E-E’

William Finn, composer, lyricist and creator of the hit musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says his own surname is the result of a misspelling. “When my great-uncle came from Russia, he kept saying he was looking for someone named Fein, so the genius at Ellis Island gave him the name Finn,” he breezily explains from his Manhattan apartment.

“The original name was something like, ‘Oren,’ but I prefer Finn, so the error was fortuitous.”

Even more fortuitous, “Bee” has placed Finn back on Broadway’s A-list after a decade of relative obscurity. The new musical, which won two Tonys in 2005, tells of six misfit tweens, played by adult actors, who experience epiphanies while tackling words such as “boanthropy” (the delusion that one has become an ox) and “phylactery” (as in “Billy, put down that ‘phylactery’ — we’re Episcopalian,” the word pronouncer says).

The comedy opens May 27 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood, starring the original Broadway cast, along with audience members who sign up to participate in the fictional bee (and who are eliminated via elaborate improvisational schemes).

The endearingly geeky main players include the unhappy overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig), the Asian American who aces “phylactery”; and sweet-tempered Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who came in third in his school bee but is competing because “the person who came in first has to go to their bat mitzvah, and the person who came in second has to attend the bat mitzvah,” he says. Then there is Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Saltzberg), a chronic lisper who keeps getting words like “sluice” and “cystitis” — and who is the half-Jewish daughter of yuppie gay dads.

Finn — known for mining his Jewish and gay identities — enjoyed commercial and critical success in the 1980s and ’90s for “Falsettos,” the story of a gay man, his Jewish family and AIDS. (One sprightly number is titled, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”) But his more recent fare, such as “Elegies,” a song cycle honoring his late friends, closed after brief runs in New York. It was Finn’s friend, Wendy Wasserstein — the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died of leukemia last year — who prompted him to consider a spelling bee musical in 2002.

Although already in poor health, Wasserstein had trekked to a Lower East Side theater, in a rat-infested former chop shop, to see her weekend nanny, Saltzberg, perform in a sketch show about a fictional bee. The production, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,” was the brainchild of actor-director Rebecca Feldman, who had never lived down misspelling “bruise” as “bruze” in a childhood competition.

The other actors also personalized their characters. Saltzberg, for one, culled material from myriad girlhood diaries to create Logainne, a somber 10-year-old who wears face-contorting braids and always takes precisely the same number of steps to the microphone. (Logainne gave — and still gives — an improvised, politically correct lecture that draws on Saltzberg’s own, oh-so-serious bat mitzvah speech about children in the Holocaust.)

Wasserstein saw something in “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” for Finn, now 55, who did not bother to attend the production but watched a tape of it on his bed, falling asleep in the middle of the show.

His snoozing did not affect his enthusiasm for the premise. Finn says he was drawn to the concept of a spelling bee as a metaphor for human experience.”Sometimes you get the easy word, and sometimes you don’t,” says the composer, who promptly wrote the “Bee” ditty with the refrain, “Life is random and unfair.”

But the show’s theme soon switched to the zeitgeist’s obsession with winners, as evidenced by the success of other bee-themed work (notably the documentary, “Spellbound”) and his own love of reality television.

“They’re my favorite shows,” Finn gushes of the genre. “My very favorite is ‘Project Runway,’ which is all about fashion and design — omigod, it’s the greatest show ever invented. And I love ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ I just find winners fascinating. I enjoy the joy of winning.”

His lust for victory can perhaps be traced to his middle school years in Natick, Mass., when Finn says his reputation as a “smarty pants” rendered him an outcast who spent much of his time “in my room, in the dark, playing the guitar I had received for my bar mitzvah.”

He would have loved to participate in a spelling bee, but he didn’t know of any around town. Rather, the prominent competitions seemed to cater to the jocks, who could butt heads in sports, and to the pretty girls, who could vie for prom queen.

“Even today,” Finn complains, “the ‘smarty pants’ don’t usually get the good competitions. It’s still all models and looks and everything but the ‘smarts.'”To write “Bee’s” book, Finn selected his precocious former musical theater student, Rachel Sheinkin, who eventually won the Tony for her efforts.

“Bill once called my writing ‘sub-English,'” she told The Journal, laughing quietly and sounding as soft-spoken as Finn is bombastic.

But Finn had noticed her flair for writing wickedly witty dialogue.

“Bill calls it ‘perverse,’ meaning he thinks I have an incredibly morbid sense of humor,” she says.

While creating the show, Sheinkin wrote in Finn’s detritus-filled office as he scribbled crossword puzzles, ate, napped — and finally banged out a song in a burst of inspiration. “We agreed that the [device] of adults playing children announces to everyone that, ‘Hey, we’re in this to laugh about our childhoods,'” she says.

“These kids who felt like freaks when they arrive to the bee find others who are just like them, and they realize they’re not going to be alone for the rest of their lives,” Finn says.

Whenever he speaks to teenagers, Finn says, he tells them they will be appreciated as adults for the very qualities that render them nerds in high school.

“Inevitably the cutest girl or the handsomest guy raises their hand and says, ‘But I’m happy here,'” he adds with a hearty laugh. “And I say, ‘Well, I’m not really talking to you. I’m addressing everyone else.'”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs May 27 through June 17. For tickets and information, call (310) 479-3636.