Spelling on Broadway

Putnam County bee cast
UW-Stevens Point’s theater department is presenting a musical this weekend and next with which I have somewhat of a personal connection. This seemed like a good time to dig-up a column I wrote back in 2005.

I can’t remember the word, but they say I spelled it correctly. And I spelled it on the stage of a Broadway musical — during the show — and I was supposed to get it wrong!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a send-up of middle school/high-school spelling bees that incorporates four audience members into the cast of six other actor/contestants. As you arrive for the show you can register for the spelling bee, and so I did. They asked my occupation and, with that, I had a hunch they might choose me — priests provide easy fodder for joke writers.

The audience contestants sit right on stage with the actor contestants. As with the actors, we’re called forward to spell and the school guidance counselor, the bee moderator, shares interesting bits of information with the audience, such as “Fr. Lindner is recovering from head lice” and “Fr. Lindner is two pieces short of swallowing an entire board game.” My first word was jihad — a religious holy war which was explained in a sentence: “Billy, get out of the way! There’s a jihad coming!”

It was really quite funny, although maybe you had to be there.

I can’t remember the second word at all, but I spelled it correctly. The third word sounded something like catamaran, and the assistant principal, in his amazement, announced, “That’s right!” Actually the word had been meant to be so difficult that I’d get it wrong and be sent back to my seat. I was immediately given another word, this one so impossibly hard that I couldn’t even pronounce it much less spell it.

To a rather rousing round of applause, my short-lived Broadway stage career was over, although the next day a stranger approached me elsewhere in Manhattan and asked, “Weren’t you in the Putnam County Spelling Bee last night?” He was from Chicago and wondered if I was really a priest. I said I was, but wondered why he’d ask — because priests aren’t supposed to be good spellers?

On the other hand, did I really spell those words correctly, or was that just part of the act?  TL



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