Now Go with Dignity

Andrea Braun reviewed our show for KDHX-FM, and though she didn't really like the material much at all, she said some very nice things about our production. But she asked some questions in her review that I think are interesting. Here's part of what she wrote:
Is it absolutely necessary to continue to milk laughs out of the mispronunciation of someone’s name, the pathological need of misfit children to win to prove their own worth, a school administrator who did an unspecified bit of something nasty in the woodshed, and a woman whose whole life has been spelling bees? And don’t even get me started on a whole song about a contestant’s being undone by an erection.
I think the reason most people find all these things so funny is that they are all so truthful...

To me, the running joke about mispronouncing Barfée's name is about the disrespect and disregard for dignity that our culture shows young people, particularly the "misfits." Barfée is doing his best navigating the choppy waters of childhood, with divorced parents, being overweight, having multiple health issues, and being socially awkward (or maybe even developmentally challenged). That the adults won't even pronounce his name correctly shows us the way we disregard those who don't fit in (a theme also found in Leaf's story). It's about power. Panch and Rona don't have to pronounce his name right. They're the adults and they have all the power. And the bell.

This is spelled out (sorry!) most explicitly in Mitch's song, "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor." Mitch understands not being shown respect:
My friend, you will be missed,
But now go with dignity.
This ends, but first on our list,
You should go with pride.
This wisdom from the ex-con sets up the epilogue in which Mitch tells us he makes comforting spelling bee kids a lifelong endeavor.

And Mr. Panch's running joke about his unspecified breakdowns is the show's way of telling us that though we're watching kids, we're not really talking about kids -- we're talking about us. The damage we suffer as kids is often the exact same damage we still suffer in adulthood. Panch is as messed up as any kid on that stage. And it also shows us (comically, I think) how crazy the adults are who are supposed to be guiding these kids through the land mines of growing up... With role models like this (I had a vice-principal in high school exactly like that), no wonder kids grow up to be such fucked-up adults...

And I would argue that Rona's whole life has not been all about spelling bees. After all, the bee only happens once a year and we are told she's a top-selling realtor. But she does see the value in the bee, allowing the kids who can't win at anything else a relatively level playing field in which to excel. Even a damaged, awkward misfit like Barfée can be a winner here. And that's what Rona wants to share. And even beyond that, America has always valued spelling bees, because being a good speller means being literate, and being literate means the real possibility of success. When we have so many kids still today graduating high school without being able to read well, it seems to me the symbolism of spelling bees becomes even more important...

And finally, Chip's song about his erection is funny to so many of us because it's so ridiculously, painfully truthful. I remember in junior high -- just riding the bus could give a guy a hard-on, which is unbelievably embarrassing and in a weird way, frightening. That whole plot element is about how biology is one of those obstacles that makes life "random and unfair" -- being out of control of your own body may be one of the worst things a person can experience... But we all deal with it...

One way or another, most of us do survive it all. And that's what Spelling Bee is about.

Long Live the Musical!