The Oberlin Musical Theater Association’s production of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be running from April 28 through April 30 (8pm on 4/28 and 4/29 and 2pm on 4/29 and 4/30) in Wilder Main. The show follows six gifted middle schoolers competing for the spelling bee trophy and a $200 prize, and the three adults facilitating. Its music and lyrics are by William Finn and its book by Rachel Sheinkin.
In an interview with director Anna Cohen (‘24), she discussed the process of putting the show together with cast and crew, which has been in the works since the start of spring semester in February. They’ve followed a typical schedule, breaking rehearsals into primarily either blocking or music. The cast has a fair amount of music and lines to remember, with a run time of approximately one hour and forty minutes. Music director Abigail Nordan (‘25) ran music rehearsals and Cohen ran blocking and choreography.
They started with a read through of the entire script, allowing the cast to meet each other and their characters. Cohen wanted them to have the opportunity to determine how their rehearsal schedule was handled, since overbooking oneself is a common problem on this campus. The actors decided what times worked best while Cohen and Nordan collaborated on what aspects and numbers of the show are most complicated and needed the most work. The cast learned the complex ensemble numbers first, alternating between full cast and small group or independent rehearsals. In small group rehearsals, Cohen, Nordan, and cast members met for table work, in which Cohen and cast discussed their characters — what each character wants from the Bee, what they want in life, how to show that to the audience, and especially how to use the music to implement the character choices. In these one on one rehearsals, blocking, character work, and music were all developed simultaneously in order to allow the actors to try different approaches in full context.
Any musical has its challenges, and Spelling Bee is no different. There are strange harmonies that were difficult to teach, learn, and memorize, but overall the cast has found it an interesting and fun experience. A majority of the characters are children, and finding ways to create vocal inflections that make the actors seem younger without becoming infantile was a fascinating journey. Cohen said, “It’s hard when you have that many people doing different things to figure out how to make them blend but it’s also been so fun. They all have such different voices, and by nature it’s really interesting to see how they’re using their voices to create their characters.”
Cohen chose the musical based on both practicality and excitement. One of the first things she looked into were the limitations of the performance space. Wilder Main isn’t what most would consider an ideal theater venue, but it is what’s available to OMTA. Cohen knew she wanted a small cast, relatively minimal set construction, and nothing outrageously musically complex. Perhaps most importantly though, is that the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun show. An extremely funny one too. “It has such interesting characters. They’re all weirdos.” Cohen is well aware that Oberlin students tend to have quirks, and every character in Spelling Bee is an exaggeration of every (pre-)adolescent anxiety and oddity you could imagine. “If there’s one thing I know about Oberin, it’s that people like to put themselves out there [and] really embrace the things that make us weird. So I wanted the opportunity for students to highlight that.” Middle schooler Marcy Park placed ninth at last year’s national bee and doesn’t know how to cry, Leaf Coneybear can only spell semi-accidentally in a trance-like state, and Vice Principal Panch returns to judge the Bee after a five year absence due to an ‘incident’ at the 20th Bee.
Theater around Oberlin recently – both straight and musical – has not been very cheery. Cohen cited Hamlet and Sweeney Todd as examples of “depressing, angsty” productions from the past few semesters. “I liked the idea of doing something that was completely different from that… It has its moments of sincerity, truth. But I liked that the people, at the end of the day, all have a good time. It’s just fun. That’s what a musical is about.”
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