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“For the Love of the Game”: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Posted by on Thursday, April 13, 2017 in 1010 blog posts, Analysis Essay, Blog posts.

It was the last day to see Vanderbilt Off Broadway’s (VOB) 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and my friend and I were already running late to the performance. We quickly rushed into Sarratt Cinema. Though the audience was filled with students and family, we found two vacant spots in the back and promptly sat down. This was a show I did not want to miss: back in high school, I frequently saw short performances of the musical during competitive speech tournaments and was eager to see the original source material. I ended up thoroughly enjoying the show, and though this production was on a much smaller scale compared to VOB’s previous production, Damn Yankees, it was just as exciting and engaging. However, although the musical comedy had a fair amount of humor, it also provided an exaggerated perspective on the over-competitiveness of our generation’s youth, and all the problems that come with over-emphasizing success at a young age.

 The musical revolves around six young children who viciously compete against one another to be crowned the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee champion. Each character is entertaining in their own unique way. Some contestants, such as William Barfée (played by Alex Schecter) and Chip Tolentino (played by Taylor Gutierrez), are previous competitors hoping to reclaim or redeem their title, while others, such as Olive Ovstrosky (played by Arielle Kasnetz) and Leaf Coneybear (played by Connor Welch), are newcomers who are just excited to participate. We learn more about the characters through the use of musical numbers. In “I Speak Six Languages,” Marcy Park (played by Jess Powers) describes herself as an overachiever, as she is fluent in six languages, while also only sleeping three hours a night. However, we soon learn she is tired of her success and wants to fail sometimes, singing “I am sick and tired of always being the best and the brightest at every mass.” In “Magic Foot,” William Barfée sings about his special technique, harnessing his magical foot to spell out the words in front of him.  As the show progresses, characters are thrown into more hilarious circumstances and eliminated, such as Chip: after being distracted by an attractive female, Chip complains about his elimination in the appropriately-titled number, “My Unfortunate Erection.”

Photo by Michael Maerlandere

By the grand finale, we have a clear understanding of each character’s motivation to win and for the characters who are eventually eliminated, we also see their reactions, which range from content (such as Leaf Coneybear) to anger (Chip). Even the administrators are heavily invested in the results. For example, in “My Favorite Moment of the Bee,” the announcer (played by Megan Ward), describes the joy and the pain, singing “in a moment he or she will enter spelling history, feeling triumph and glee.” However, throughout the spelling bee, we witness the characters take extreme measures in the pursuit for first place, complaining about unfair words, and even sabotaging one another. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenieere (played by Lindsey Swearingen) is pushed by her two overbearing gay fathers to win the competition at any cost, including damaging William’s “magic foot.” For her, the spelling bee is the most important competition of her entire life, all eight years of it.

Though the musical is a humorous take on the spelling bee and exaggerates certain competitive aspects, the spelling bee has become a serious competition for young children around the nation. Every year the Scripps National Spelling Bee is featured on ESPN, with big sponsors such as Microsoft and Amazon (Associated Press). To further validate the spelling bee as being a serious competition, there are also big prizes. Whereas the children in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are competing for a $200 savings bond, real spellings bee include cash prizes of up to $40,000, computers, and encyclopedias. Though some of the competitors may be competing for the enjoyment of the sport, the inclusion of such large rewards are distractions that attempt to quantify a child’s idea of achievement, often by placing monetary value on success. Rather than asking “how would it feel to win,” children are pressured by “how much prize money they could earn” or “who they could beat.” Even when children are truly passionate about a competition, they often find themselves pressured to best one another. For example, take Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar. In 2014, both Ansun and Sriram won first place at the National Spelling Bee, and during a segment on CNN, both children spoke about their happiness in sharing the first-place prize. However, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo encouraged the children to find the “real winner,” stating:

“Between the two of you, you’re going to have to figure out a way to decide who’s better, is there any other kind of competition? Perhaps go to an alleyway and fight it out?” (HBO).


Although Cuomo was making a joke, such a scenario would be entirely plausible in the Putnam County Spelling Bee, with its exaggerated characters thirsty for first place. Therefore, while the show delivers an entertaining time, it also pokes fun at our love for competition, and how silly it can become.

This push for competing is not isolated to events such as the spelling bee; costume contests, beauty pageants, and many others activities are being turned into sports, with prizes and “fame” on the line.

Why is this a thing?

However, that is not to say sports shouldn’t be competitive. In fact, sports are competitive by nature: one team is pit against another, and only one can be declared the victor. Yet certain activities are not entirely suitable for competitions, and for children as young as six years old, it is usually the parents who push them to compete, eager to display their child’s success as their own trophy (Richtel). Perhaps part of the blame lies with our emphasis on individualism. Western culture often highlights the success of single individuals, with big names such as Beyoncé, Stephen Colbert, or Ryan Gosling. What isn’t often talked about is the team effort needed to produce such successes. As mentioned in class, backstage workers are often crucial in making a production successful, and yet they are given little recognition for their work.

Thus, it is important to emphasize cooperativity amongst competitivity. Competition is impossible to avoid: not everybody can become a doctor, or a famous actor, or a pro football player. However, competitions should not be a point of emphasis at such a young age. Rather, it should be intertwined with cooperativity in order to increase one’s overall happiness with the activity, as well as nurture one’s passion for said activity. Had William Barfée spent more time talking to Olive about spelling words and less time boasting about his intelligence, both characters could have strengthened their love of spelling. After all, the joy of spelling is worth more than a $200 savings bond.



25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. By Rachel Sheinkin. Vanderbilt Off Broadway. Sarratt Cinema, Nashville. 8 April TN. Musical.

Associated Press. 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali ends three years of hurt to claim national spelling bee title. 31 May 2013. Webpage. 11 April 2017.

Last Week Tonight. Dir. HBO. Perf. John Oliver. 2017. TV Show.

Richtel, Matt. “The Competing Views on Competition.” The Competing Views on Competition. The New York Times, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 13 Apr. 2017.



One Comment on ““For the Love of the Game”: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

I admire Alexander’s essay on the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He provides a great overview of the play, while also going into depth on the concept of competition and how it is not restricted to spelling bee’s, but rather beauty pageants, and costume contests as well. The following claim he made after saying that these competitive events are essentially being shifted into the realm of sports because of the prizes and declaration of “fame” that is on the line too.

Although he mentions how competitive the Scripps National Spelling Bee, he uses that example as a reference to discuss the different values children have whether they’re competing for money, prizes or just the love of the game. Utilizing platforms such as ESPN, and plumping up the prizes such as making the grand prize $40,000 really changes the perspective of why certain children compete. It may not be as much as the $200 savings bond in the Putnam Spelling Bee, however the overall moral of the concept remains the same.

I agree with his statement there because since this play revolves around the lives of six young children, the idea of developing the competitive nature of kid who has yet to reach puberty, brings truth to his argument about how certain activities do not require to much competition. Also, the amount of pressure that is put on children who are barely 6 years old, and are competing to win a big cash prize, really affects them emotionally. However, to parents, it is just a platform to pursue their goal of showcasing the success of their children.

Lastly, I totally agree with Alexander’s statement that we have put an emphasis on individualism. I do understand that it takes a village to be successful, and like we discussed in class, the people behind the scenes and doing a lot of the background deserve a lot of praise and credit. Competition is inevitable, and in today’s day and age, the demand for people to pursue certain occupations such as being a doctor, lawyer, etc is pretty high.

Such a good analysis provided by Alexander and I appreciate his lead essay.

Nifae Lealao on April 17th, 2017 at 8:57 am

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