Interview: Colin Hanlon is Bringing SPELLING BEE Into 2023 at George Street Playhouse

Learn how Hanlon revamped Spelling Bee for the current time, and why he says this is "the most proud I've ever been in showbusiness."

By: Apr. 03, 2023
Interview: Colin Hanlon is Bringing SPELLING BEE Into 2023 at George Street Playhouse
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George Street Playhouse is currently presenting The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, running now through April 9th at the Arthur Laurents Theater at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is directed by Colin Hanlon, with book by Rachel Sheinkin with additional material by Jay Reiss and features music and lyrics by Tony Award winner William Finn. Musical Direction is by Mat Eisenstein and choreography by Nancy Renee Braun.

This Tony Award-winning musical comedy follows six middle school misfits in Putnam County, New York as they compete in a spelling bee, taking the audience on their journey of self-discovery and belonging.

BroadwayWorld spoke with director Colin Hanlon about revamping the musical for 2023, what this production means to him, and more!

You starred in a production of Spelling Bee at Bucks County Playhouse in 2015, and now you're directing this production at George Street Playhouse. How does it feel to approach this musical from the director's chair?

It felt incredibly exciting and incredibly stressful at the same time. I have a long history with Spelling Bee, I saw it originally at Barrington Stage Company because my first boyfriend ever was playing Chip Tolentino, and my best friend Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] was starring as Leaf, and I knew everybody. So I went to support them and was like, "What is this little thing in a cafeteria that I'm going to go see at Barrington?" And then it turned into what you see today, it went on to Second Stage, it ran on Broadway for many years.

Jessica Stone directed the production at Bucks County Playhouse, and she asked me if I wanted to do it, and it was actually one of my most favorite shows I've ever done on stage. But I knew that since I'm doing it 20 years later, I couldn't do the old Spelling Bee, nor would I want to. Because the Broadway version was perfect in every way, and Jessica's version was really great at Bucks County Playhouse, and it's 2023, lots of things have changed in our culture, in our politics, in our joking. So, there were a lot of things that needed to be revamped and rewritten. And with the permission of the writers, I was able to point out a bunch of things that just weren't holding up in 2023, and they completely agreed and were like, "You're not the first one to tell us this." So I sort of had a blessing on their part to be like, "Yeah, fix some stuff, do your version of it, whatever you want."

Interview: Colin Hanlon is Bringing SPELLING BEE Into 2023 at George Street Playhouse

That's a pretty rare opportunity to get to update a work to fit the current time.

A lot of it is improv, 90% of it is scripted. You have four guest spellers that get up every performance, so you basically have four new cast members who are joining your company, and you have to adapt to that. So, we have some very current... woke is one of the words we use, we make fun of George Santos in our production, every once in a while we'll throw in a sentence about that. Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, which is Sarah Saltzberg's part, she played it originally, she rewrote that monologue rant that she does in the second act to be new every week to fit the current times. We have a whole bit in there about the Silicon Valley Bank, and about how everyone is freaking out about that, but the tagline at the end is, "Sure, drag queens are the problem."

Spelling Bee is so amazing, and its universal story of what it is will never go away, but there are certain references that we couldn't use anymore. Some language they were using that was even sort of risqué in 2003 just definitely did not hold up in 2023.

What has it been like working with this company?

It's been amazing. I was very lucky to get this cast, I didn't know most of them before I cast them in it. Something I do as a director when I'm casting a show is I never look at their resume. Because I don't really care, especially in the first round, if you've been on Broadway, I don't care that you've starred in a series. It's just about what you're bringing into the room, and the preparation that you bring in, and your true self, and if it's the right vibe that's needed for the piece. And each one of these people, the second they walked in the room I was like, "Ooh, I'm interested in this human being," for one reason or another. It sounds so woo-woo, but it's sort of a feeling you get, and then you just keep thinking, "Oh god, please be able to sing, please be funny when we get to the text." And they were. This cast is great, they were definitely along for the ride of me really re-looking at and revamping certain characters.

We really revamped the Mitch character, who is the comfort counselor, who was originally played by Derrick Baskin. That's a role that just did not age well in 2023. It's stereotypically a black man who's on parole, who's at the bee, and he's got that whole monologue joking about wanting to beat up the kids, and I was like, "God, how am I going to do this in 2023?" So I made him a genderqueer Brooklyn, possibly a drag performer at night, but during the day he's not. Aaron Michael Ray came in and auditioned, and I was like, "Thank god this human being came into the room because he's perfect." He's truly perfect for the part. He comes in, and immediately from his entrance the audience knows exactly who he is, in part because of Lisa Zinni's costume design. I loosely based him on Lafayette from True Blood. So, he's this genderqueer man who wears a little bit of base on his face, and there's a little bit of sparkle, but if you cross him he will destroy you.

The power behind this individual, he's not afraid to show his femininity, and I wanted the audience to feel a little bit like, "Woah, who is this person coming in wearing lip gloss?" Because Aaron is a 6-foot 4 man. I even wanted the kids to be like, "Woah!" But by the end of the bee, he's the one adult who is actually the most sane, who they love the most. I'm really proud of that character! I didn't change one single line, but I was able to change the intention of the character, and I was able to change who that character is as a human being, and I think it really works!

Interview: Colin Hanlon is Bringing SPELLING BEE Into 2023 at George Street Playhouse

What are your thoughts on Spelling Bee being being recently canceled at a school?

I think it's just nonsense, frankly. That's blatant homophobia. They didn't want the depiction of two dads with an adopted daughter. Yes, there is the "Erection" song in the second act, but the school version of it is not those lyrics, it's completely changed. I understand if they don't want a kid onstage singing about having an erection, I totally understand that. But, to say that the adult characters are offensive is just silly, and completely homophobic.

It was really great that the original cast formed together and they were like, "No, no, no," and called them out on it. Because it's 2023 and homophobia is rampant around the world, and definitely in red states, and it's unfortunate. And theatre should be a place where kids that don't know where else to belong, belong.

Why do you think Spelling Bee is a musical for now?

I think it's a musical for now because the universal message of not feeling like you belong anywhere is something that every human being can relate to. I didn't really know what I was good at or who my group was until I went to theatre camp and I looked around and was like, "Oh, woah, everybody knows the lyrics to Miss Saigon as well! I'm not a crazy person! People know the lyrics to Bye Bye Birdie, they've seen the movie!" And before that I was a swimmer, I was a baseball player, I was a tennis player, I did all the sports that were like, maybe kind of gay [laughs], but I was sort of just okay at them. But then I realized, when I got on stage, that there was something I was doing that made people pay attention and respect me in that way.

And I think that's what happens to these characters in Spelling Bee. It's a group of misfits who don't know each other before this bee, they've all won their district bees, they all come together, and they compete in a spelling bee. And each one of them has a moment that I call the "Real World confessional" moment, where they break out into a direct address to the audience. And that's either done through monologue or through song, and you get to really see inside this child's head and know the anguish and the pain that they're going through, and how much they want to win this bee. And you just fall in love with these kids. And as an audience member you forget that only one of them is going to win. So, the most gratifying thing as a director is to hear audiences gasp and groan when that bell hits and their favorite character gets out. It's so sad, but it makes me realize that all of us who are involved in this production of Spelling Bee did our jobs right.

What would you like to say to people who are coming to see Spelling Bee at George Street Playhouse?

I think that Spelling Bee at George Street Playhouse is going to surprise you. I really tried my best to direct it like a play with music, and it's not just about a bunch of adults playing children, it's about humanity, and it's about winning and losing, and it's about not judging a book by its cover, and it's about teamwork, and collaboration. And this cast is truly phenomenal, they're just outstanding humans, they're outstanding performers.

My choreographer, Nancy Braun, she made every single number in Spelling Bee basically an 11 o'clock production number [laughs], it's truly insane. I just want to make sure I emphasize how much I love Nancy Braun, she's an incredible choreographer, she's the Resident Choreographer for Moulin Rouge!, she's worked on a million Broadway shows, she works on television all the time, she's got a great eye for movement, and these numbers are just fantastic. I would be shocked if someone came and they were disappointed in this version of Spelling Bee, I think it's unlike any version that's been done so far, and I'm incredibly proud of it. I think it's the most proud I've ever been in showbusiness.

Interview: Colin Hanlon is Bringing SPELLING BEE Into 2023 at George Street Playhouse

Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson