Volume 17 • Issue 32 • Dec. 31, 2004 - Jan. 6, 2005

Second Stage Theatre
307 W. 43rd St.
(212) 246-4422
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Previews begin Jan. 11

From left, Rachel Sheinkin, William Finn, James Lapine and Rebecca Feldman.

Prof. and student team up on S-C-R-E-W-Y musical

By Jerry Tallmer

It’s easy to spell his name: W-I-L-L-I-A-M F-I-N-N. Her name? Not so easy: R-A-C-H-E-L S-H-E-I-N-K-I-N. Now try this one: L-O-G-A-N S-C-H-W-A-R-Z-E-N-G-R-U-B-E-N-I-E-R-E.

Logan Schwarzengrubeniere, a bright but uptight high-school girl who has two dads and no moms, is one of the contestants in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which also happens to be the name of a slightly screwy musical — book by Sheinkin, music and lyrics by Finn — that starts previews Jan. 11 toward a Feb. 7 opening at the Second Stage Theatre on W. 43rd St.

The screwy is what makes it charming.

William Finn you know, or should know. We thank him for the various incarnations of the deeply moving “Falsettos” that won him two Tony Awards a few seasons ago; also for “Elegies: A Song Cycle,” plus his contributions to “In Trousers” and “A New Brain.”

Rachel Sheinkin you probably don’t yet know unless you are one of the people who saw a play of hers called “The Doctor of Last Resort” as done by the Clubbed Thumb Theater Company. Or unless you sat in on the class at N.Y.U.’s School of Musical Theater taught by Finn, where in 2001 Ms. Sheinkin was one of his students.

“Perverse, but very talented,” is the way Finn describes her (in her presence) during an interview. Well, a co-interview. “She’s a girl with many degrees,” says Finn, as Ms. Sheinkin winces. Her degrees are, for the record, a B.A. from Brown University, an M.F.A. from Yale School of Drama, and a second M.F.A. from N.Y.U.

Between the two of them, professor and former student put words and notes in the mouths of such “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” contestants as Logan Schwarzengrubeniere, Leaf Coneybear, Gramercy Park, William Barfee, Olive Ostrowsky and Tripp Barrington.

It is Tripp Barrington (actor Jose Llana), last year’s runner-up, who gets to sing a tender ballad called “My Unfortunate Erection,” and if you ever were a kid of the applicable gender, and more than once faced such a moment in public, you will know just how that is, or was.

“I’ve never had that problem directly,” says Ms. Sheinkin.

“But it was her idea,” says Mr. Finn.

Presiding over the spelling bee is Douglas Panch, principal of Lake Hemingway-Dos Passos Junior High School. “Dos Passos is one of my favorite writers,” says Finn. Panch is played by Jay Reiss. Others in the ensemble are Derrick Baskin, Deborah Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Dan Fogler, Lisa Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Sarah Saltzberg (as the girl who seizes her moment in the limelight “to thank my dads, Daniel Schwarz and Carl Grubeniere”).

It was, in fact, Sarah Saltzberg because of whom this whole thing got started as a project for Finn and Sheinkin.

“It was,” says Finn, “when Wendy Wasserstein went Downtown to see her weekend nanny in a show called ‘C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,’ done by Rebecca Feldman’s company, an improvisational group called The Farm. The nanny was Sarah Saltzberg, who is now in our show.

“Sarah Saltzberg’s idea — all these Jewish women!” says the bearded William Finn, who, though large and Irish-looking is in fact Jewish. “Her idea was an improv spelling bee. She directed it. They did a video of it, and Wendy Wasserstein sent me the video. It needed more music, among other things.

“I watched it, and called up Rebecca Feldman, and invited her for a weekend, and she came, and we talked, and among other things it became clear that what was needed was a book writer. I suggested Rachel Sheinkin.”

That young woman has had only one dad, but he was a holistic psychiatrist and her mother is a psychotherapist. Rachel was born in Brooklyn.

When would that be?

“Oh, YOU know,” she says with a wave of the hand.

Born in Brooklyn, grew up in Rockland County. “She’s in her 30s,” says William Finn, parentally. He’s 52 and was born in Boston. His father was a salesman. Upper West Sider Finn has lived for 25 years with Arthur Salvadore. Rachel Sheinkin lives alone in Park Slope.

Just before she entered Finn’s N.Y.U. class she was up in Northhampton, Mass.

“Living without a car in Northhampton, Mass.,” Finn throws in.

Massachusetts, where she was trying to complete a play — “The Doctor of Last Resort” — that had been commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club. It wasn’t going well.

“I was very lonely up there,” she says. “I was also writing textbooks. One night I had a dream, I was happy, I was dancing. In the morning I got a call saying I’d got in this class at N.Y.U. I said to myself, O.K., I’ll go down to New York and live the way many people live.”

“Well, we had this video,” says Finn, picking up the thread of the making of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “and everybody knew that it had to be a written show at the end of the road, but there were a lot of bruised feelings before it came out great.

“Rachel and I were working two-and-a-half months on it in my apartment, and at that point I called Julianne Boyd, who runs the Barrington Stage Company in Sheffield, Mass.

“I said: ‘Julianne, I have this show, I’ve done one half of three songs, and a book we’ve been working on for two or three months. What we need is a place to put up nine actors for a month.’ And Julianne said: ‘Yes.’

“On January 10 we went up there, with the actors, and stayed there and worked there until February 20, and the miraculous thing about it is that from the first performance, uncompleted as it was, it was very successful.”

A large part of that success, he says, is thanks to the “spectacular” music arrangements by Carmel Dean, another of his former students. Not to mention the direction by his old “Falsettos” colleague, James Lapine.

Also not to mention the disciplinary input from afar of E-R-N-E-S-T H-E-M-I-N-G-W-A-Y and J-O-H-N D-O-S P-A-S-S-O-S.

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