Spelling Bee Thursday: Bee Trivia

Photo of 1925 National Bee Finalists

The 1925 National Bee finalists

 We are in the fourth week of our Spelling Bee Thursday blog series highlighting all-things The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

To get you in the spelling spirit, this week, we thought it would be fun share a few fun facts about spelling bees and the Tony Award-winning musical with a little help from our Dramaturg Robert Neblett.

Here we go:

Why is it called a “bee”?

(Source: SpellingBee.Com, the official website of the Scripps National Spelling Bee)

The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family. The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee in 1769. Other early occurrences are husking bee (1816), apple bee (1827) and logging bee (1836). Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.

Those who used the word, including most early students of language, assumed that it was the same word as referred to the insect. They thought that this particular meaning had probably been inspired by the obvious similarity between these human gatherings and the industrious, social nature of a beehive. But in recent years scholars have rejected this explanation, suggesting instead that this bee is a completely different word.

One possibility is that it comes from the Middle English word bene, which means “a prayer” or “a favor” (and is related to the more familiar word boon). In England, a dialect form of this word, been or bean, referred to “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task.”

Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.

Short History of the Musical

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began as a heavily-improvised performance piece titled C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E, originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman and the members of her company The Farm, in 2002. After its initial success, the play was adapted as a musical in 2004 by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn (the composer behind Falsettos and A New Brain). The musical originated at the Barrington Stage Company, then played off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2005, transferring to Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre later that year. Spelling Bee won two Tony Awards in 2005, one for Best Book of a Musical by Rachel Sheinkin and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Dan Fogler as William Barfée). Fogler is the only member of the original cast of C-R-E-P-U-S-C-L-E to remain with the show through the Broadway run.

40th Anniversary Season Connections

Did you know that Broadway’s original Olive Ostrovsky, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, also played the female lead role of Molly in the original New York production of Peter and the Starcatcher?

2015 Spelling Bee Champs (2)Co-Winners

A tie can be declared if the national competition officials run out of words from the year’s approved list before one of the top two spellers are eliminated. In 2014 and 2015, the Scripps National Spelling Bee declared co-winners: Sriram Hathwar, an eighth-grader from New York, and Ansun Sujoe, a seventh-grader from Texas, in 2014; and Vanya Shivashankar (Kansas) and Gokul Venkatachalam (Missouri) in 2015. This has only happened five times in the history of the National Spelling Bee, and the last time co-winners were crowned prior to 2014 was 1962.

A-R-K-A-N-S-A-S

While the 1995 national champion was technically a resident of Arkansas at the time of his win, his official state affiliation was Tennessee. To date, no Arkansas resident has ever won the national spelling bee.

“Parent/Teacher Nights

Beginning with the original Broadway production, companies of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee often schedule adults-only performances of the musical, featuring risqué vocabulary words and blush-worthy definitions and sentence usage examples, provided by the character of Vice Principal Panch.

Sharpton Tony Awards (2)

Al Sharpton was one of the volunteer participants during a scene from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Tony Awards.

Audience Participation

More than 4,500 audience members joined the Broadway cast onstage as volunteer spellers during its original New York run. This aspect of the show adds an element of unpredictability to the evening’s festivities. One audience volunteer was a National Spelling Bee champion, and she lasted 14 rounds onstage before being eliminated. Another memorable audience moment involved a spectator who angrily accused the actor playing Barfée of misspelling words during the performance. A celebrity audience sighting saved one performance when an actor became ill onstage and Panch noticed TV star David Hasselhoff in the crowd and brought him onstage while the sick actor’s understudy was prepped to go on in her place.

The Cast is a Modern Family

The actor who originated the role of home-schooled speller Leaf Coneybear in the New York production is acclaimed stage and screen actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, best known as Mitchell on ABC’s popular comedy Modern Family.

Home-Schooled Champions

The winners of the 1997 and 2000 National Spelling Bees were home-schooled students like the musical’s Leaf Coneybear. It is unknown, however, if they were cape-wearing dinosaur enthusiasts.

Don’t miss the highly acclaimed musical when it takes center stage Oct. 16-Nov. 8– book your tickets by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visit TheRep.org.

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