Spelling Bee Thursday: An Introduction


The original Broadway cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in 2005.

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

This week, we are breaking things down a bit and offering a look at what exactly the show is about, a little history and more.

Here we go:


From William Finn, the composer of Falsettos, A New Brain and Little Miss Sunshine, comes a Tony Award-winning look at the all-too-familiar world of adolescence, told with hilarity, catchy tunes and surprising poignancy.

The gloves are off in the take-no-prisoners, cold-blooded, dog-eat-dog world of competitive spelling as a menagerie of pre-pubescent misfits vies to d-e-c-i-m-a-t-e their young rivals on the cutthroat path to the national spelling bee championship.

Hormones rage and pulses pound as our awkward adversaries engage in feats of o-r-t-h-o-g-r-a-p-h-i-c prowess. The winner will receive a shining trophy and a luxurious DC hotel room with a big screen TV. The loser – nothing but a broken heart, a pat on the back and a juice box.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, first conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music/lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, began development at the Barrington Stage Company of Pittsfield, Mass. in two different stages, according to the Musical Theatre International website.


Patrick Halley as William Morris Barfee in The Rep’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

After developing into full-scale musical, Spelling Bee then moved Off-Broadway to the Second Stage Theatre under the direction of James Lapine. Opening for previews on Jan. 11, 2005, and officially on Feb. 7, 2005, Spelling Bee received great reviews, sold out its limited engagement, broke box office records at Second Stage and extended its run. The musical concluded its short but successful Off-Broadway stint on March 20, 2005.

One month later, on April 15, 2005, Spelling Bee transferred to Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre, again receiving outstanding critical and box-office achievement. The show closed on January 20, 2008 after 1,136 performances and has since lived on with major success in two national tours, numerous international productions and numerous regional productions at theatres across the country.


This laugh-out-loud musical comedy has won numerous major awards since taking Broadway by storm, including:

  • Drama Desk Awards for Book of a Musical (Rachel Sheinkin), Director of a Musical (James Lapine) and Ensemble Performance
  • Outer Critics Circle Award for Featured Actor in a Musical (Dan Fogler)
  • Tony Awards for Book of a Musical (Rachel Sheinkin) and Featured Actor in a Musical (Dan Fogler)

Learn more about the fun (and youthful) costumes in our From Script to Stage video series here!

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.

Mary Poppins Monday: P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins

A new production is getting underway– Mary Poppins– and that means a brand-new blog series highlighting the various aspects of the show!

PL Travers, wrote Mary Poppins series of booksThis week, we would like to take a look at the woman behind Mary Poppins– author P.L.  Travers. For our study guide, Dramaturg Robert Neblett provided an in-depth look at this legendary woman and her legacy, just in time for our Mary Poppins production set to take stage this week!

Early Life

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in 1899 in Australia, P. L. Travers had a colorful life before ever being approached by Roy and Walt Disney to make a film version of her Mary Poppins books in the mid-1940s.

After her alcoholic father, a bank manager, died of tuberculosis in 1905, her mother and sisters moved to Bowral, New South Wales. While attending boarding school, she began writing poetry and pursued a career as an actress. After she moved to England in 1924, she assumed the pen name P. L. Travers and started creating the characters who would soon populate her children’s books.

In her youth, she lived a globetrotting life, studying poetry with the leaders of the new Irish national literature movement and even working in the United States studying Native American mythology and folklore.


Upon the 1934 publication of Mary Poppins, Travers became an international success, following up the original volume with seven sequels over the next 50 years. While she wrote many other children’s books and nonfiction works, none achieved the success that her Mary Poppins books did.

Mary Poppins author DL Travers with Walt Disney and Julie Andrews

Julie Andrews, Walt Disney and P.L. Travers

Beginning as early as 1938 Walt Disney pursued the rights for a film adaptation of Travers’ Mary Poppins stories. She refused him for nearly 20 years, finally agreeing to meet with him and the film’s collaborators in California in 1961 as a “consultant” on the film, largely because she was in danger of financial ruin. These encounters are dramatized in the 2013 film “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Her main objections to the film version were that she felt Mary Poppins’ character had been “softened” too much, she did not like the music composed by the Sherman Brothers for the film and was absolutely opposed to any use of animation in the telling of her story. Ultimately, Disney overrode her objections once he purchased the rights from her, claiming final cut privilege.

The tension between Travers and Disney was so strong by the time of the world premiere of the film that Disney did not even invite her to the event. She had to ask to be added to the guest list. She was supposedly so angered by the final version of the film that she wept openly during the screening. Even though the film secured her financial future and reinvigorated her fame for the rest of her life, she always regretted her decision to sell her beloved character to Disney. When asked for permission to create a sequel to Mary Poppins, she refused and would not change her mind.

Who is Mary Poppins, exactly?

The character of Mary Poppins, as written by Travers, is often cold, intimidating, stubborn and unsympathetic. Her hardness is intended to cut through the nonsense attempted by the Banks children, in an attempt to civilize their uncouth ways. However, she does take the children on a number of magical adventures in which they are exposed to compassionate, open-hearted friends, relatives and associates of Mary Poppins, all of whom seem to be as ancient and timeless as she is.

Mary Poppins’ true identity is never disclosed, although there are intimations through the books that she may be a shooting star or a “fairy tale come true.” She is referred to as “The Great Exception,” meaning that she has retained the memory of being an infant and possesses special abilities that humans lose as they grow older, including being able to talk to animals. She also remembers the eternal world from which we are born into existence on Earth.

Pulled from the Mary Poppins study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Check back every Monday to uncover a new aspect of this magical production and get your tickets to our biggest show ever by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visiting TheRep.org!

Whipping Man Wednesday: Historical Background

THEREP_THE WHIPPINGMAN (no credits)-page-001With The Whipping Man in its last week on the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, we have short series called “Whipping Man Wednesday” every Wednesday throughout its run.

In closing, we are taking a look at the historical background of the show to better understand this thought-provoking story! For our study guide (available here!), Dramaturg Robert Neblett took a look at the context of the show and we thought it would be fitting to share it for our last post of the series.

Historical Background

The Whipping Man takes place in mid-April, 1865. This is a time of great potential and
even greater tension. The American Civil War has come to an abrupt end with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union military leader Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. On April 14 of that same year, President Lincoln is assassinated. While the War is over and Southern slaves have been legally emancipated, a long period known as the Reconstruction is about to begin in the United States, which will seek to unify the citizens and borders of a broken country. Prejudices, anger, and abuse remain, and corruption abounds during the period between 1863 and 1877.
Jewish Southerners and Jewish SlavesCivil War Jews
Historically, Jews accounted for only 1.25 percent of all slaveowners in the American South in the period leading up to the Civil War. Jewish Southerners seemed to possess many of the same attitudes toward slave ownership as their Gentile neighbors, but because the Jewish landowners did not possess the wealth of their Christian fellows, they were less likely to own and operate plantation estates, as the DeLeon family in The Whipping Man demonstrates.
The Civil War and Reconstruction in Arkansas
In the years leading up to the beginning of the American Civil War, the state of Arkansas
was resistant to the idea of secession, until April 1861 when President Lincoln called upon
the Unionist-allied state to supply military aid against Confederate troops in South Carolina. The state’s response was clear and secede from the Union in May 1861 with a 69-1
Union Occupation Little RockIn 1863, Union forces attacked several garrisons throughout the state, including the defenders of Arkansas Post, where almost 5,000 Confederate soldiers were taken prisoner as a result of their loss. Throughout the rest of the year, Union troops pushed the Confederate presence farther and farther south in the state, and in September 1863, Little Rock fell to Union control. In March 1864, Union forces suffered a defeat during the Red River Expedition and were forced back to Little Rock. By the end of the War, more than 10,000 Arkansans lost their lives, regardless of color or political affiliation.

Pulled from The Whipping Man study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Get your tickets now for this thought-provoking drama, running through Sunday, Feb. 8. Purchase yours online or by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405. Also check out the full lineup of engagement events for the show here. We hope to see you here!

Whipping Man Wednesday: An Introduction

With The Whipping Man about to take the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, starting Jan. 23, we are penning a new short series called “Whipping Man Wednesday” every Wednesday throughout its run.

To start our series– with the help of our dramaturg, Robert Neblett– we will take a look back at the history, synopsis and rundown of this widely produced play written by playwright Matthew Lopez.

Matthew Lopez

Matthew Lopez


Lopez says that The Whipping Man began as a 20-minute one-act play called “The Soldier and the Slave” many years ago. Once it developed into a full-length drama, it received its world premiere at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ, in 2006. Since then, it has had major productions around the country, including an acclaimed West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2010 and an Off-Broadway production at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2011 starring André Braugher.

The play won the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle, as well as several 2011 Lucille Lortel Awards and nominations and a 2011 Obie Award for Braugher’s performance.

Check out this video interview with Lopez about the show on Onstage here.

Michael A. Shepperd as Simon. Photo by John David Pittman.

Michael A. Shepperd as Simon. Photo by John David Pittman.


Caleb DeLeon (played by Ryan Barry*): 20s, the only son of the DeLeon family of Richmond, Virginia

Simon (played by Michael A. Shepperd*): 50s, former slave in the DeLeon home

John (played by Damian Thompson): 20s, former slave in the DeLeon home


On Passover, 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. One of these homes sits in ruins. As Jewish confederate officer Caleb DeLeon returns from the war, badly wounded, to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining, Simon and John, the two men are forced to care for him.

As Caleb, Simon and John wait for the family’s return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets as well as new ones. With Passover upon them, the three men unite to celebrate the holiday, even as they struggle to comprehend their new relationships at a crossroads of personal and national history and to come to terms with the sordid legacies of slavery and war that threaten each of their future freedoms.

Pulled from Elf study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Get your tickets now for this thought-provoking drama. Purchase yours online or by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405.

Elfie Tuesday: An Intro to Elf The Musical

With Elf The Musical taking the Arkansas Repertory Theatre stage, starting Wednesday, Dec. 3, we are penning a new short series called “Elfie Tuesday” every Tuesday throughout its run.

To start our series– with the help of our dramaturg, Robert Neblett– we will take a look back at the musical and what it was before became a fixture in theatre: a movie of the same name, starring Will Ferrell and James Caan!



After 10 years of development and pre-production, the film of Elf was finally released in November 2003, with a script by David Berenbaum and direction by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Chef). It starred Will Ferrell in his first post-Saturday Night Live role as Buddy, James Caan (The Godfather) as Walter, Zooey Deschanel (The New Girl) as Jovie, Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) as Emily, Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as Santa and Bob Newhart (The Bob Newhart Show) as Papa Elf.

They introduced the world to an unlikely new Christmas hero in the movie Elf. A contemporary fable, this comic film charmed audiences and critics alike, and Buddy the Elf soon became the unofficial mascot for the holiday season in 21st Century America.

Wide-eyed Buddy reminds us that there is still room for magic in our world of hyper-commercialism and Black Friday sales and that the most precious gift of all is the love of family.

The film opened at No. 2 at the United States Box Office and went on to gross more than $220 million worldwide.

It received relatively favorable reviews from critics and audiences for its good-natured humor and positive message. Ferrell’s childlike performance catapulted it to an audience favorite, and Buddy is now a regular fixture in Christmas decorations and holiday television offerings.

In 2010, the story took on a new dimension as it was adapted into a festive seasonal Arcelusmusical for the stage by Tony Award-winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and the Tony-nominated Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer and Shrek: The Musical).

Elf: The Musical broke Broadway box office records and toured the country before being snatched up by regional theatres across America, like The Rep this season!

Some differences between the film and the musical:

  • Papa Elf’s (Bob Newhart) role as the film’s narrator is replaced by Santa Claus onstage.
  • Buddy does get a job in the mailroom at the publishing house.
  • The snowball fight that endears Michael to Buddy is replaced by a science project onstage.
  • The role of temperamental author Miles Finch (played by Peter Dinklage), whom Buddy mistakes as an elf, is excised.
  • The musical does not reference the apocalyptic Central Park Rangers, who chase Santa’s sleigh in the movie.

Pulled from Elf study guide, prepared by Robert Neblett.

Great seats are available for Elf after Christmas. Purchase yours online or by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405.

Wait Until Dark Wednesday: A Look Back

Broadway 1The opening of Wait Until Dark is fast approaching and to highlight some of the cool aspects of the show, we’ll be doing a short series called “Wait Until Dark” every Wednesday through Nov. 5.

Before fans feast their eyes on the upcoming thriller, it’s important to take a look back at the long history of this legendary production.

Robert L. Neblett, an American theatre scholar, has prepared an educational study guide to accompany students for special student matinee performances of Wait Until Dark, which includes a historical rundown:

Knott Dial M for Murder

Frederick Knott and Grace Kelly on the Set of Dial M for Murder

Playing off the enormous success of Dial M for Murder, his 1952 television play that was later turned into a London and Broadway hit, then a blockbuster film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Frederick Knott wrote the stage version of Wait Until Dark in 1966.

Broadway 2

Robert Duvall as Roat terrorizes Lee Remick as Susy
in the 1966 Broadway production

The Broadway premiere of the thriller starred Lee Remick (Anatomy of a Murder, Days of Wine and Roses, The Omen) as Susy and Robert Duvall (The Godfather, The Apostle, Tender Mercies) as Roat. Remick was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance, for which she studied with the Lighthouse Foundation for the Blind to prepare for the role.

The play received overwhelmingly positive reviews and it ran for 374 performances.

In 1967, a film adaptation of the play starring Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Funny Face) as Susy, Alan Arkin (Catch-22, Glengarry Glen Ross, Little Miss Sunshine, Argo) as Roat, Richard Crenna (Rambo series, The Real McCoys) as Mike, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (77 Sunset Strip, Maverick) as Sam. The film also featured a chilling score by Harry Mancini. It was one of the most popular films of the year.

As the screen is plunged into darkness, movie theatres dimmed and turned off their auditorium lights until the audience was in complete darkness during the film’s climactic scene.

Hepburn Match

Audrey Hepburn as Susy in the 1967 film

Hepburn earned an Academy Award nomination and she and Zimbalist were nominated for Golden Globes for their performances. It is rumored that Julie Andrews, George C. Scott, and Robert Redford were at one point considered for the roles of Susy, Roat, and Mike, respectively.

Bravo lists the climax of the film as No. 10 on its list of 100 Scariest Moments. The American Film Institute ranks the film as No. 55 out 100 best thrillers for the screen.

Tarantino Roat 1998

Quentin Tarantino as Roat in the 1998 New York revival of the play

In 1998, a New York revival starring Marisa Tomei as Susy and independent filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as Roat opened to mixed reviews, largely due to Tarantino’s “wooden” performance.

In 2013, a new stage adaptation of Knott’s play by Jeffery Hatcher opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, starring Alison Pill (The Book of Daniel, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Newsroom) as Susy. The adaptation transfers the action of the play from the 1960s to the 1940s and capitalizes on a film noir sensibility. It also replaces the heroin sewn into the doll with valuable diamonds, eliminating the theme of drug trafficking. This version of the play will open in New York in late October 2014.

See The Rep’s production of Wait Until Dark live onstage, starting Oct. 24 and running through Nov. 9. Purchase online here and get more information about the show–including special events– here.

Memphis Monday: A Historical Look at Memphis The Musical

The premiere of Memphis The Musical is fast approaching and to highlight some of the cool aspects of the show, we’ll be doing a short series called “Memphis Monday” every Monday through Sept. 22.

Before fans feast their eyes on the high-energy regional premiere of the show, it’s important to showcase where it all started and where it’s going, not to mention its collection of awards it has gathered along the way.

Robert L. Neblett, an expert in American theatre, has prepared an educational study guide to accompany students for special student matinee performances of Memphis The Musical, which includes a historical look of the production:


Memphis: The Musical was originally developed at the North Shore Music Festival in Massachusetts and TheatreWorks in California in 2003-04, and subsequently staged at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2008 and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre in 2009.


Chad Kimball (far right) played Memphis DJ Huey Calhoun in the original Broadway production of Memphis The Musical, starting in 2009.

The musical opened on Broadway in October 2009, where it played for over 1,100 performances before closing in 2012. In late 2011, the actor playing Huey Calhoun, Chad Kimball, left the musical’s cast due to an injury, and was replaced by Adam Pascal, best known for starring in the original Broadway casts of Rent and Tim Rice and Elton John’s Aida.

In 2011-13, the producers mounted a successful national tour of the musical.

The original Broadway production was filmed in high-definition for a limited digital cinema release in 2011, after which it was released on DVD.

Memphis: The Musical will open in London’s West End in late 2014.


Memphis was nominated for 8 and won 4 Tony Awards (celebrating the best in Broadway theatre) in 2010, including:memphis-the-musical


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Joe DiPietro and David Bryan

BEST ORCHESTRATIONS: Daryl Waters and David Bryan


Memphis won 4 Drama Desk Awards (celebrating the best in theatre throughout New York City, on Broadway and off), including:




It also won 4 Outer Critics’ Circle Awards, including:

BEST SCORE: David Bryan and Joe DiPietro



Don’t miss your chance to see this award-winning musical take The Rep stage Sept. 5-28! Get your tickets to show- single tickets are available now! Purchase online here and get more information about the show–including special events– here.