Songs from Musicals: #48, “Pandemonium,” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Honorable mentions: “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” and “My Unfortunate Erection”

(There are two musicals I’m going to have to double-dip from, because silly me, I did not expect to embark on this project when I wrote posts about single songs from some favorite musicals. One of those musicals was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a show that I would not have picked if I had known I was going to have to type that name over and over again. “The I Love You Song” is overwhelmingly my favorite song from that musical, so here I’ve chosen a second favorite.)

Spelling Bee features (adults playing) kids, and depending on your personal experience and/or your optimism about childhood, it’s either about the abiding sadness of childhood or about the inherent goodness in kids. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be about both, obviously, but almost every song is drizzled in a sugary unhappiness, and for that reason I favor the former interpretation. (Feel free to point out the end of the show as evidence for the latter, to which I’d reply that five minutes of relief do not erase eighty-five of complaints.) I have hypothesized before that Olive, aside from being motherless and lonely, is the victim of some kind of domestic abuse; Logainne is beaten down by her dads’ sky-high expectations; Leaf is beaten down by his family’s rock-bottom expectations. One envies Marcy (too perfect), Chip (too close to puberty for comfort), or Barf (just plain weird); at least they don’t appear to be on the highway to years of ineffective therapy. The adults are not exactly sterling examples of adjustment from childhood, either. Mitch, the comfort counselor, is an ex-con who’s at the spelling bee to fulfill community service hours. Mr. Panch returns to the Bee after five years and a promise that “that incident” is behind him. Rona lives in the glory of having won the Spelling Bee as a girl. There isn’t a single set of parents one would trade for. The most responsible adult to show up is Jesus.

I like that in a musical built on solos and duets, there’s this one song where the kids, as a group, get to express how burnt out they are and how unfair their situation – spelling, technically, but it’s symbolic – can be. Later in the show, in “Why We Like Spelling,” they speak as a group on why they enjoy some of this self-inflicted pain, but by then they’ve been split up; Chip has already been forced to pay the piper. It’s in “Pandemonium” that all of them come together to protest the fact that anyone who’s ever watched any playoff action knows well: “The best spellers don’t necessarily win.” One child has “staphylococcus” thrown at him; a couple of minutes later, the word reader shouts, “Somebody spell ‘crayon!'” “Crayon?!” the kids reply.

“Life is random and unfair,” they sing. “Life is pandemonium.”

It’s a mature thought, for sure, but it’s not a strange one to imagine young folks having, and certainly not when they live with the families they have. Not only do they realize that there’s randomness and unfairness when their parents pressure them, or siblings demean them, or when their hormones spike as they hear the word “tittup” and see Marigold Coneybear in the audience: they can see the proof of it every time they step up to the microphone to spell their word. The words are, ostensibly, leveled, but at the same time there is no guarantee that they’ll know the word. Leaf’s bizarre, hypnotic affinity for Amazonian rodents aside – he gets “capybara” and “acouchi” before getting bumped by the Andean “chinchilla” – that’s the kiss of death for a spelling bee contestant. Being a kid is tough enough without having to pin one’s self-worth on whether or not you can spell “Weltanschaaung.”

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