Interview: FIPAP Brings Beloved Tony-Winning Musical to Fire Island Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Learn More!

By: Aug. 28, 2019
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If you love your dictionary, a heartwarming underdog story or just some good musical theatre, Fire Island Pines is the place to be this weekend as Fire Island Pines Arts Project (FIPAP) presents a rare NYC-area revival of the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

With a gorgeous and clever score by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, this gem of a show took home 2005 Tonys for Sheinkin and original star Dan Fogler.

Interview: FIPAP Brings Beloved Tony-Winning Musical to Fire Island Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Learn More!
The FIPAP cast of Spelling Bee...

"An eclectic group of six mid-pubescents vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime," per notes from MTI. "While candidly disclosing hilarious and touching stories from their home lives, the tweens spell their way through a series of (potentially made-up) words, hoping never to hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing, life un-affirming ding of the bell that signals a spelling mistake. Six spellers enter; one speller leaves! At least the losers get a juice box."

Directed and choreographed by Cynthia Murray-Davis, the cast is positively loaded with some of the finest theatre talent from New York and beyond. The musical plays at Fire Island's Whyte Hall on August 31 and September 1.

While hard at work alternately rehearsing in the city and onstage at the stunning island summer retreat, director Murray-Davis and FIPAP familiar face Steven Alan Black (who brings his "magic foot" to the role of WIlliam Barfee) took the time to chat about the production and share a bit of history behind this one-of-a-kind theatre company.


For both of you, tell me about your history with the show? Have you seen or worked on previous productions?

Black: First time doing this show. I saw it when it was Off-Broadway at Second Stage.

Murray-Davis: This is my first time with the show. I knew some of the songs, but that's about it.

I'd love to know a little more about the Fire Island Pines Arts Project. Tell me a little about the history of the company. What would you say are some of the standout productions from past seasons and how did you go about selecting Spelling Bee for this year?

Black: FIPAP was founded in 1981 to bring art and cultured entertainment to the residents and guests of Fire Island Pines. We only do events/productions on the Island between May and September each summer season. Some standout productions have been Hello Dolly!, Into The Woods, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Merrily We Roll Along, The Rocky Horror Show and La Cage Aux Folles.

We chose Spelling Bee since we were looking for a single unit set, small cast musical for this summer's production. Spelling Bee had been on our list of top 12 shows to do one day on the Island. Most shows get on our list and remain there for 4 to 5 years before we actually produce it.

How did you go about selecting the ideal cast and creative team for this project?

Black: Since we are a unique theatre (being on an Island in the middle of the ocean) and since this is a benefit, we tend to use people from within our community and with actors/creative staff who have come recommended to us. All but two cast members in Spelling Bee are returning cast members. There are 5 returning creative staff members out of 7.

Interview: FIPAP Brings Beloved Tony-Winning Musical to Fire Island Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Learn More!
A sneak peek at the set

I saw a regional production not too long ago and was struck by how timeless it feels. What is it about Spelling Bee, in your opinion, that has allowed it to age so well and why do you think it resonates so strongly with such a broad audience?

Murray-Davis: First, the script and score are tight. It is a beautifully-written piece and that is what makes it timeless, in my opinion.

I think we can all remember being children and going through those years where we didn't fit in- no matter what our background, socio-economic status was, etc. Some of us may still be finding our way. In this case the Spelling Bee is an outlet for those "different" kids to find a safe space to be themselves with like-minded individuals. Most people can relate to that on some level.

Black: It has a very well written libretto. Spelling Bees are timeless in themselves - why not a show about Spelling Bees being timeless.

I recall being blown away by this sweet, quirky show when I first saw it at Second Stage 15 years ago. Would you say that there is a main message or lesson to be taken from it?

Murray-Davis: What struck me the most about this show is the impact adults have on children. Our words and actions are incredibly powerful. I was deeply moved by the back stories of each "Speller" and how their parents/family units greatly influenced who they are.

What about the process has been the most challenging so far? What aspect has been most fulfilling? Anything particularly surprising?

Black: Since we are a theatre on an Island in the middle of the ocean, everything is a challenge. It's like working at no other theatre in the world - you can have the beach, ocean and bay all day, then a great theatrical experience at night. Cast members want to return over and over again for the summer stock feel they experienced as an 18 year old (and now everyone is a bit older).

Everything associated with the production has to be brought over to the Island by boat (there are no cars on the Island). This creates a multitude of problems to solve. You just can't run to the corner store if you need something. It requires a 20 minute trip off the Island and then a 20 minute trip back (not counting the time it might take you to get what you need).

Interview: FIPAP Brings Beloved Tony-Winning Musical to Fire Island Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Learn More!

Murray-Davis: I enjoy collaboration. I think being open to trying different ways of approaching a piece is very important since more often than not, I find something wonderful that comes from a mistake or a seemingly "bad" idea. I won't always have the answers so will try something else. My challenge with any piece is that I will always want more time to rehearse. I love the process of discovery. The most fulfilling for me is seeing an actor embody the character and their growth in finding their voice. I have been blessed with an exceptional cast of artists. They are thoughtful, kind, obviously talented, and have been a pleasure to work with.

Another challenging aspect is remembering that we are on an island, so once we are there full time in tech week that's it! No more props, set additions, etc, so we have to be extra prepared and ready to go with the flow.

The show structure has famously allowed for certain theme performances like "Adult Night" and "Halloween Night" on Broadway. Can Pines audiences expect any fun updates to the material to fit the location and season?

Murray-Davis: We certainly have added our own special flair to this production that I hope the Pines residents will enjoy- and even if you're not familiar with The Pines, I promise that our tweaks will not disappoint!

Black: When the script allows, we have definitely used those moments to bring in themes and ideas which our audience will get a kick out of hearing/seeing and deal directly with the Island.

For those unfamiliar with the show, how would you describe the upcoming production and why should audiences take the time to spend their evening with it?

Black: It's 100 minutes of pure fun and humor. Spelling Bee is funny, touching and has lots of heart. You end up cheering and rooting for each Speller.

Murray-Davis: Spelling Bee has heart. You grow to love each character and by the end are rooting for each of them to win.

Finally, for those who haven't spent a lot of time on Fire Island, any other activities/hotspots/places to eat that you personally recommend?

Murray-Davis: The beach, bistro, sip and twirl... honestly, a walk along the ocean could be my favorite thing to do- but you may be asking the wrong person! ;)

Black: Come spend the day on our beautiful white sand beach, have lunch at the Blue Whale, Pines Pizza, or the Canteen. After the show, go have a drink at Low Tea or dinner at The Bistro before boarding your Ferry home.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays Fire Island's Whyte Hall on August 31 and September 1.

Tickets and information can be found here.

Interview: FIPAP Brings Beloved Tony-Winning Musical to Fire Island Aug. 31-Sept. 1; Learn More!
A shot of the iconic Fire Island sunset, courtesy of cast member Alex Chester