One of the surprise hits of the season is a little musical that blossomed from an improv performance about the geekiest of all childhood pursuits and ended up on Broadway. The 25th Annul Putnam County Spelling Bee that opened at the Second Stage Theatre and moved to Circle in the Square has generated more buzz than a swarm of locusts. Audience members are taken on an angst-ridden journey as six “students” vie for first place in their county spelling bee. With direction by James Lapine, music and lyrics by William Finn, and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, this spelling bee gets an A+ for effort.
Beowulf Boritt's abstract gymnasium takes the audience back to school along with Natasha Katz's lighting, Jennifer Caprio's costumes, and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design. Considering so many amateur productions across the country are actually presented in such venues, the designers were up for the challenge to make the setting realistic yet whimsical because high school gymnasiums can be pretty depressing, especially if you're not an athlete, according to Boritt.
Basketball goals hang from the rafters. Knotted climbing ropes snake down from the proscenium as if to taunt the chubby kids. An American flag is askew in a tilted base, pointing offstage right. The walls are askew as if the school was at the epicenter of a massive earthquake. But the odd angles only add to the fun. Welcome to the gym at Putnam Valley Middle School, home of the Fighting Piranhas, courtesy of Boritt, whose set was designed, literally, with a vengeance. “My inspiration was my own personal vendetta against the jocks from my high school who got all the funding while the drama club got nothing,” he jokingly explains.
The set's inspiration occurred to Boritt while he was poring over research of high school auditoriums and gyms. “I found a hilarious picture of a multi-purpose room that was like a cafeteria, auditorium, and gymnasium with a basketball hoop bolted to the proscenium,” he says. “I liked the idea of these kids who were the best spellers in the county forced to exist in the temple of sports, since there's obviously no spelling bee room.”
Boritt's set, however, is not comprised of items ordered from an athletic supply company. In fact, the designer created the set so that each piece of scenery would relate to four separate perspective points in the house, a concept that he says he will never try again because it was such a headache to coordinate with scene changes. One point is about 10' upstage of the back wall; another point is stage right, about 300' off the set that everything on stage points to; and the other two points are up in the air that everything leans toward and gets narrower as it goes up and angles toward the stage. “The lines in every piece relate to those four points and every time we moved something, even a couple of inches on stage, all the relationships changed and we had to redraft the entire piece,” he explains. “The perspective points gave the set an added sense of whimsy because it's clearly not realism. It's a very rigid whimsy because it is all parallel lines that's a lot of fun for the show and it made sense since spelling is rigid — it has right and wrong answers. Nobody realizes the technical mechanics that create the perspective but it gives it a firmer framework rather than just creating a wacky set.” The set was constructed by Brooklyn-based Daedalus.
The set's skewed perspective was needed because of the conceit of adults playing children, Borrit says. “You can't do strict realism because you need a framework that will allow that leap of faith from the audience,” he says. “In a truly realistic set it would be bizarre to have adults playing kids, and they'd look all wrong. And since audience members are on the set as well it would look even weirder because it would be so clearly unreal.”
The scale of the set is inconsistent from one part of the stage to another, and that was very much the idea. “The first portal and the bleachers relate most directly with the actors so they are oversized and it does make the actors feel smaller,” Boritt says. “But by the time you get to the back wall, the double doors are only five feet tall so when Jose Llana [who plays Chip Tolentino] stands next to them, he's a foot taller than the doors. It makes everything so off kilter that it seems there's no scale on stage at all. And with the actors floating all over the stage, it works really well.”
Color choice was also an important consideration for Boritt as he kept trying to incorporate an aqua-green color that high schools have been using since the Eisenhower administration but opted for a palette that was essentially primary colors: bright yellow, bright blue, and bright red. “There's something cartoonish about the realism,” he says. “We weren't striving for a cartoon but there was a graphic boldness to the color choice that we ended up sticking with. Through tech and previews the clothes started moving in that direction too but there was more realism to them than to the sets. We ended up in this graphic iconic world which helps with adults playing kids in this slightly surreal reality.”
While the space at Second Stage had its own unique set of challenges — 21' of design space; no load in other than a 2' by 14' trap door in the lobby, or the stairs; and limited lighting positions (“Natasha Katz is a genius!” Boritt exclaims) — the new space at Circle in the Square was a different animal altogether. “This is probably the only space on Broadway that we couldn't just move the Second Stage set into,” he says. “We've moved into a deep thrust but it's essentially a theatre-in-the-round. The sightlines are massively different and the space is lower and deeper, which helps us. With the transfer, we've opened it all up and we're doing it properly.”
After a rushed design period of about 10 days — “I'm delighted to be doing a Broadway show; I just didn't think I would have to churn one out so fast!” — Boritt created a new set that incorporated the new thrust stage. “The set is very recognizable as the same idea,” he says. “Three portals and all of the tricks that live with them are up at the proscenium end of the thrust. The thrust is very deep and we've filled about half of it with audience seats to resemble bleachers and the basketball court juts out into the other half. It's like dragging the floor out and elongating it from the previous version.”
When Jennifer Caprio was designing the costumes for the freaks and geeks that populate Bee, she found an interesting conundrum: How would she be able to make adult actors look like children? “It was hard to disguise the fact that they're adults,” she says. “Because they're all actors with beautiful bodies and normally you're trying to show that off. A lot of it was trying to square them off without making them look heavy or ungainly, especially in the women's instances, and giving them a more youthful shape.”
When dressing the cast as children, Caprio had to walk a fine line so that the audience would be able to suspend its belief. “It's always dicey when you have adults playing kids and you never want them to look like adults playing kids so you have to find this middle ground where the audience will believe they're children, or at least playing children,” she explains. “You don't want actors to look fat and bad on stage but they need to look like children who are more square and chubbier than adults.”
The kids' wardrobe also included certain colors and items that adults never wear — or probably shouldn't wear — such as a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, a private school uniform, pink overalls, or even a scout uniform. The uniforms presented another unique set of obstacles. “Marcy [in the Catholic schoolgirl costume] was a particular challenge, especially taking into consideration the fetish aspect,” Caprio says. “You have to be careful as to how short the skirt is but we kept her body covered up, as opposed to the Britney Spears [video “Hit Me Baby, One More Time”] where she has her shirt tied up.” As for the scout uniform, Caprio removed any emblems with the logo or that said “Boy Scouts of America” just to be on the safe side. Chip Tolentino, the character in the scout garb, never mentions that he is a member of the scouts in the script, so it is just the image of the traditional Boy Scout that is presented.
The only costumes that Caprio created from scratch were Marcy, Leaf Coneybear, and Jesus Christ. The rest were basically “off the rack” as she went to children's clothing stores to see what kids would buy for themselves but therein was another stumble as so many of the clothes kids wear today are simply smaller versions of adult clothes and that also was a challenge because they could easily have fallen back into that Britney category that Caprio was avoiding at all costs. “Fortunately all of the characters are a little off so I had some leeway,” she says. “We were pushing some stereotypes, but that's okay.”
One character that Caprio enjoyed designing for the most was Leaf Coneybear who, as the script states, designs his own clothes. “Since he was the son of hippy parents who had many kids, he would probably have hand-me-down corduroys with lots of trim. A lot of the hippy kids I knew growing up had those homemade patchwork pants,” she explains. Luckily while Caprio was in Maine working on another show she hit the jackpot in terms of vintage fabric that was ideal for Leaf's wardrobe. “I found all these place mats, sheets, and tablecloths from the 70s and 80s that don't exist anymore and I was able to fill a bag [at a vintage clothing store] for three dollars each that I would've never found in New York,” she says. “I had this idea that Leaf would go through his house and find things his mom was getting rid of and put it all together to make his pants.”
Leaf is also dressed in a tie-dyed shirt, a helmet, workout jacket, Birkenstock sandals with two different colored socks, and a cape. The cape was a carryover from the previous production of the show at Barrington Stage Company by actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson who portrays Leaf. “I thought it was strange at first, but once I saw the read-throughs I thought it was essential for his character. It was a quirk I didn't want to get rid of especially since it originated as an improv piece with so much of the characters coming from the actors,” Caprio says. “If there was something I could keep that was important to him, then I would gladly do so.”
As for costuming Jesus, there was a debate as to which version should be used, the one on the cross or the “sacred heart” version. “We went with a more loving, welcoming Jesus since he appears to Marcy in a vision and we thought that's what a fifth or sixth grader in Catholic school would see,” Caprio says. “We ended up with kind of a Buddy Christ (from the movie Dogma) which works really well for the show because it's sort of childlike and happy.”
Katz in the Cradle
While some gyms are cold and forbidding with harsh fluorescent lighting, others have a more comforting and welcoming feel, and it was the latter that won out for Katz. “Warm and fuzzy seemed to be the way to go since Beowulf was so playful with the perspective and there was so much fantasy,” she says, alluding to the fantasy scenes each of the spellers has during the show. “The fantasy sequences allowed a whole different departure in terms of the lighting but it was always in the context of the gym, which I really loved. Very often the lighting is required to take that step [into fantasy] for us without the backup in the show, but the show does so much of it already.”
Boritt's color choices were a big influence on Katz and she was excited to work on a slate that wasn't exactly blank. “Lighting designers are completely keyed in to what the materials and colors the set designers use and it defines so much of where we go,” she explains. “The great thing about the floor is that it could take color so well, as could the portals which served as a projection surface for each of the fantasy sequences.” Aside from the floor, a blue Commando Cloth drape upstage from I. Weiss seemed to magically change colors, which Katz says is due to two separate circuits. “I could make the curtain red with one circuit and while it was red I could change the other circuit to another color so I was able to get crossfades from any color to any color. Sometimes you don't realize it's lighting that's changing the same piece of scenery, but that curtain was crucial to changing the mood and going into the fantasy sequences.”
Essentially the show is divided into two separate worlds when it came to Katz's use of color — the gym scenes, which are warm with virtually no color, and the fantasy sequences. “Since the budget was limited, we didn't have a lot of fancy stuff and there's something very organic because it's about kids,” she explains. “It's very fanciful but the fantasies come from their minds. It was kind of invigorating to do it the old fashioned way.” Each of the characters has his or her own signature color and pattern during their fantasies; one character has a Venetian blinds gobo, another has a very pink sequence, and so on. Katz credits Rosco's Colorizer gobos for making the fantasies come to life with such rich color as well as a variety of patterns.
The entire show was programmed on an ETC Obsession 1500 console, which is “unusual for me to use just one board in a show with moving lights, but we were able to program it as if it was a contemporary lighting board,” Katz says. She credits board operator Matt Adelman for his technical prowess in programming the show's moving lights, ETC Source Fours® in moving yokes and High End Studio Spots®. “The auto-yokes functioned just to really light their faces so we spent a lot of time programming it just following people, which means the actors had to stand in the right place and move to the right place every time.” One scene in particular really showed the hard work of the console and the auto-yokes; latch key kid Olive imagines her perfect family set against the Taj Mahal. “That scene had some fancy cuing going on as one auto-yoke passes from one character's face to another and another,” she explains. “It took a lot of programming time but it was so important to see the face and have this mood around them.”
According to Katz, since the auto-yokes were Source Fours, the color temperature was the same as the rest of the rig. “Sometimes when you use a high-powered moving light, the color is so different that it bleaches out what's behind it,” she says. “These auto-yokes were crucial for the show because I could really light an actor's face. If I didn't have them I would have to bring up more than one light to illuminate an area and then light spills everywhere. You can't get the same kind of mood. That's why we've used follow spots all these years. [With the auto-yokes I was] able to light their faces but still change the mood.”
Katz added that follow-spot capabilities were also performed with the auto-yokes and that most of the equipment was from Second Stage's own inventory while some was provided by Fourth Phase.
Sounds Like Teen Spirit
Even though the show takes place in a high school gym, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier did not necessarily want the students to be echoing throughout the house. Reverb is used in his design, but as he says, “it's used tastefully.” The reverb was used very specifically to help assist and define the moments. Reverb was used for the bee scenes but was also used during a fantasy sequence set in India when an actress' track goes into a deep reverb to indicate that she was very far away. “The function is very dramaturgical,” he says. “The types of reverb we used are based things I heard in gyms, but it's a very light touch so you shouldn't really notice it. It's not in your face.”
It turns out this simple show is a highly technical production for the sound designer. “You have to use the sound design to define when the spelling bee is on and when the musical theatre pieces happen outside of the spelling bee,” he explains. “It's all based around how the handheld mikes are used in relationship to the wireless mikes.” When the bee is taking place, the students are at a mike stand downstage center and they are talking to bee moderators, Miss Peretti and vice-principal Panch, who are speaking into desk mikes. However, when the students have their individual fantasy sequences is when the wireless mikes come into play.
“It's fun for me from a technical standpoint because we're often switching when we're going to the wireless mike on their head versus the bee mike in the middle of one of their bits so it's seamless,” Schreier says. “If they're talking into the microphone and spelling, then they break into song and walk away from the mike stand, you should be able to understand that the sound is changing slightly and we're getting away from the bee and into a fantasy moment.” He added that the change is so subtle that only another sound designer would notice. “It's sleight of hand, or rather, sleight of ear. I saw my job as being to help define the different parts of the musical.”
The show was mixed on a Yamaha DM2000 as the main mixing console with a Midas XL88 as an outboard matrix mixer. The band was mixed with Aviom A-16 personal monitor mixing systems that allowed each musician to control his or her own mix. The wireless mikes the actors wore were Sennheiser SK50s and SK5012s. Sound engineering duties were performed by Pea-Jae Stasuck and Anthony Smolinski was the assistant sound designer.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee re-opens at The Circle in the Square Theatre on May 2.