The nine original cast members of Broadway’s "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" reunited Monday evening at Town Hall in a one-night-only production celebrating the 10-year anniversary of William Finn’s Tony-winning musical.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson (TV’s “Modern Family”), Lisa Howard (“It Shoulda Been You”) and Jose Llana (“The King and I”) put on their spelling bee numbers and jumped back into the show, which is about a bundle of socially awkward youngsters as they find joy, heartache and purpose by competing at a regional spelling bee.
“It’s amazing how much you remember,” Ferguson told NBC New York, of returning to the material. “It’s like riding a bike, only what we remember the most is how much fun we had doing it.”
Tony winner Dan Fogler was there too, returning to the shoes of eccentric spelling champ William Barfée whose "magic foot" -- as explained in the song of the same name -- helps him visualize each word on the floor in front of him. The bit played just as well 10 years later, getting howling laughs from the enthusiastic audience.
For Fogler, “Spelling Bee” has always been a surreal experience.
“Imagine you create a character with your friends in an improvisational situation,” he told NBC New York. “And the next thing you know, you’re working with legends. And you go all the way to Broadway. And you win a Tony for it! And 10 years later, you get to do it again. It’s a dream come true.”
Three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger (“The Glass Menagerie,” “Peter and the Starcatcher”) was also on hand -- though the new mom, who created the role of Olive in “Spelling Bee,” had to bow out of performing due to the short rehearsal period.
That didn’t make the evening any less special for her.
“There’s a lyric in the show that says, ‘It was a very nice, very nice, very very very nice, very nice beginning,’” Keenan-Bolger told NBC New York. “And I was such a mess as soon as I heard it, because it really was the beginning for all of us. And we have now come back. It feels special.”
Olive was played on Monday night by Jenni Barber (“The Nance”), who, fittingly, had taken over the role when Keenan-Bolger left the original production. Barber had the crowd in tears after her tender performances of “My Friend, the Dictionary” and “The I Love You Song.”
Keenan-Bolger did make an appearance on stage, however -- and to thunderous applause at that. She joined Barber during the show’s final moments, where we learned that Olive grew up to be “a loving and attentive parent.”
How do you spell “Awwwwww”?
The rest of the original cast (pictured above) -- Derrick Baskin, Deborah S. Craig, Jay Reiss and Sarah Saltzberg -- effortlessly jumped back into their respective roles. The evening also featured a number of notable updates to Rachel Sheinkin’s book, including a callout to Caitlyn Jenner, new words and definitions from Reiss and a hysterical rant about gay marriage and Greece by Saltzberg.
“Spelling Bee,” which is based on an original play by The Farm called “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,”
first premiered off Broadway, with sold-out runs at the Barrington Stage Company and the Second Stage Theatre. The show opened on Broadway on May 2, 2005, and closed after 1,136 performances on Jan. 20, 2008. It was nominated for six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
James Lapine and Darren Katz, the Broadway production’s director and resident director, co-directed Monday’s benefit, which was presented in memory of the late “Spelling Bee” production stage manager Andrea “Spook” Testani Gordon.
“She was so graceful, and attentive and smart in the way she took care of all of us, because it was almost all of our first Broadway shows,” Keenan-Bolger explained to NBC New York. “She just knew how to navigate those waters for us. She was a really special woman. And I feel like she would have been pretty excited about how it all went down tonight.”
At the end of the evening, her husband John joined the original cast and “Spelling Bee” alumni -- including Mo Rocca (“CBS This Morning”) and Tony nominee Sarah Stiles (“Hand to God”) -- for an emotional tribute to his late wife, who died after a battle with cancer in November 2014.
More than $200,000 was raised in Spook’s name to benefit The Actors Fund’s Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative. Newman herself was at the concert, announcing that $20,000 of the proceeds would go into the trust funds of the Gordon children, Robert and Sean.
Leaving behind a legacy for Robert and Sean seems fitting, as “Spelling Bee” has touched so many lives over the past 10 years. “There are always students coming up to me and telling me ‘I did ‘Spelling Bee’ too!” Lisa Howard told NBC New York. “I just love that we ultimately got to pass something like that on to people.”