Life is ‘Pandemonium:’ A peek into ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’

The cast and creative team of Vanderbilt Off-Broadway discuss what to expect from the new spring show.


Vanderbilt Off-Broadway

‘Spelling Bee’ cast rehearses leading up to the performance. (Photo by Vanderbilt Off-Broadway)

Blythe Bouza, Staff Writer

Capybara. Cystitis. Qaimaqam. Camouflage. Chimiracle. What could all of these words possibly have in common? They’re all said in Vanderbilt Off-Broadway’s (VOB) upcoming production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” of course. 

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical comedy with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. The show centers on a fictional spelling bee set in the fictitious Putnam Valley Middle School, featuring six eccentric kids as they compete for the grand prize: the chance to spell at a spelling competition in Washington, D.C.

The show opens this weekend with performances on Friday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m and Saturday, April 23 at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here

In the midst of the tech week hubbub, I interviewed VOB President and Director junior Sarah Lovett about what it’s been like to direct this quirky and memorable show.

Vanderbilt Hustler: What has it been like working with all students and having a student directed show?

Sarah Lovett: Working on an entirely student-run show is such an incredibly rewarding process. Just seeing what your peers are capable of and getting to really get your hands dirty, so to speak. VOB really allows you to assume leadership positions in theatre that you might otherwise not be able to at the college level. 

It makes it so incredibly fun to be surrounded by your peers and bonded by a shared want to make a show successful with limited resources and time. It is genuinely so impressive what I have seen people pull off in this space and how, despite the fact that we are all friends, we all snap into show mode and focus and do what we have to get done. I think working with all students allows the shows to become truly our own and it’s just really cool.

What made you choose “Spelling Bee” as your spring show?

The first reason I wanted to do “Spelling Bee” is because it is so funny. I last an average of probably 10 seconds without laughing every time we run the show. After everything that we have all been through lately and following the fact that we did two shows with heavier themes earlier this season, I knew that I wanted to do something silly and light-hearted to give the organization and the community an opportunity to let loose a little. But don’t get me wrong, the show is also really beautifully poignant in how it handles the subjects of adolescence and the pressure to succeed. 

The show is all about those of us that as kids were major overachievers and the various external forces that drive us to feel like we have to be constantly be achieving more and more, so I felt like it was something that the Vanderbilt community could really resonate with and enjoy. On top of all of that, the show has a lot of improv elements and leaves a ton of room for the actors and creatives to infuse it with their own senses of humor and ideas. Every time you see the show, it’s different than it was the night before, and I thought that would be really fun and challenging to take on.

What’s the rehearsal process been like for the show?

We rehearse four days a week for two to four hours each rehearsal. We had only two months to put it together so we had to move quickly and it hasn’t been easy, but the cast and crew are so incredible it never felt like we were working. Rehearsal was so much about playing around and figuring out what jokes we wanted to include, bits to do, and even words we wanted to be a part of the spelling bee. 

We also dedicated a lot of time not only to teaching vocals, dance, and acting separately, but focusing on how those three elements come together to create larger than life characters. I think the rehearsal process has been so much fun, but I’m the director so what do I know?

This show is pretty intimate in terms of its cast, but are you doing the audience involvement component?

Oh, yes we are. Above all else, this is a spelling bee. There is competition, and the audience is not left out of that. If you want to find out what that means, come to the show and find the people with clipboards in the lobby.

Favorite moments in the show that you feel like the audience should look out for?

First of all, all of the “easter eggs” on the set. Our wonderful set designer Hana Woolley has put a lot of thought into planting jokes everywhere. My personal favorite is the Orlando Bloom poster. My other favorite part of the show is the number “Pandemonium” it is exactly what it sounds like and you would be remiss to not see the chaos that unfolds. Lastly, there’s a beautiful moment in the show—I won’t spoil what it is—that I guarantee will make you cry. I can’t watch it without crying. 

It’s really confusing because the whole show is so funny but sometimes the emotions just hit you like a truck. I also would encourage audience members to see the show multiple times if possible because, as I mentioned, it is different every time. Also, anytime you look at anyone in the background they are doing something hilarious and in character, so it’s worth seeing if anything to pick up on stuff like that.

Describe the show in three words.

Unhinged. Heartwarming. Hilarious.