SARAH SALTZBERG's purse is your typical overstuffed cross- section of a fast-paced New York life: compact case, expired Metrocards, several months' worth of unsorted receipts. Amid the clutter, though, is a tattered piece of paper, stained by what looks like a lipstick explosion and folded for so long that it's falling apart at the creases.
In childlike scrawl, a phone number is written over several times. The handwriting is that of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, for whose daughter Saltzberg once served as weekend nanny; the number belongs to Broadway composer William Finn.
Saltzberg has good reason to tote around this bedraggled talisman, as she has done for nearly five years: It represents not only her personal ticket from sketchy downtown improv to Broadway but also the fluky, serendipitous rise of the audience-interactive stunt "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E" from the rat-infested Lower East Side performance space where Saltzberg and her buddies first staged it in 2002 to 2005's Tony-bedecked "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," with a score by Finn, a script by Rachel Sheinkin and direction by James Lapine.
The hit show now has a sit-down company in Chicago and a national tour, and it makes its L.A. debut with the original Broadway cast at the Wadsworth Theatre this week.
This wasn't your average downtown transfer. "Urinetown," which debuted at the same rat-hole (the since-razed Present Company Theatorium) en route to Broadway, was always a meta-traditional musical. "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," on the other hand, began as a character-driven improv conceived by Rebecca Feldman, head of a troupe called the Farm.
"I'd been reading the book 'Bee Season,' " Feldman recalled, "and I thought it would be fun to put on a spelling bee, have adults play kids and have the audience interact." Beyond the fun factor, Feldman thought the piece would offer a chance to "look at how much competition we're put into as kids."
The show's initial incarnation featured larger-than-life characters who would survive to the final version -- Jay Riess' officious vice principal, Mr. Panch; Saltzberg's overachieving little sparkplug, Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre; and Dan Fogler's arrogant, sinus-impaired slob, William Barfee, for which he would later win a Tony -- and a few in-your-face, on-the-nose songs by Michael Friedman ("I'm going to win this bee today!" was a typical offering). It also closed with a jokey rendition of "Luck Be a Lady."
"When Wendy saw it," Saltzberg recalled, "she said, 'It's great, I love it, but you cannot end the show with 'Luck Be a Lady.' It has to be a real musical.' That's when she gave me Bill's number."
Wasserstein wasn't sure Finn would write it himself, since most of his work had been intensely autobiographical ("Falsettos," "A New Brain"). But she figured that since he teaches musical theater at NYU, he might know an up-and-coming composer for the job. When Finn saw a video of "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," though, he was hooked.
"I thought, 'I've been waiting for this my whole life!' " declared Finn, a bittersweet bear of a man, reclining in the cozy green room of Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre. "I love competition, and here's a competition for smart people. I always thought if I were on 'Survivor,' they would throw me off before the first elimination because I'd be so annoying -- unless they needed someone to write a sestina. So here finally was a chance to write a sestina for 'Survivor.' I was totally thrilled."
HE brought in a former student and NYU teaching colleague, playwright Sheinkin, to write the book for a workshop at the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts. The way the creative team describes it, it was a trial by fire -- or rather, ice.
"We were stuck in January and February up in the Berkshires, and it was really snowy," Finn recounted. "I felt like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' I really felt I was going crazy. From the minute we woke up, we were living with the people we were writing with -- it was just misery, misery, misery. To think that this joyous thing came out of it is startling."
"It was like giving birth," conceded Saltzberg, a petite but steely blond. There was another reason for the intensity of the labor: "Not only were we creating together, but we were dealing with stuff from our childhood. The emotions that it brought up were sort of raw. That, plus it being the middle of winter and all our free time being spent with each other.... What made the battles OK were that they came from a passion to make the show better."
"We all had to learn to negotiate the writing," Feldman said diplomatically. "We were all writing, even though there was one writer actually typing it all down."
That would be Sheinkin, a quiet woman with reddish-brown curls who seems to slide easily into a conciliatory, above-the-fray role. It's a temperament that may be particularly well suited to the writing of librettos for musicals, which by their nature encompass disparate elements and large creative egos (with the band GrooveLily, Sheinkin has created the musicals "Striking 12" and "Sleeping Beauty Wakes").
"I feel like I have accidentally developed this niche in highlighting other people's strengths," Sheinkin said. This came in handy with the improv-generated "Spelling Bee," for which "group authorship wasn't a style, it was a fact." She added that one colleague even joked to her that "on the scale of jobs that he knew of, book writing for 'Spelling Bee' was just under crack whore." Except that few crack whores win a Tony for their efforts.
Sheinkin's key showdowns came when she insisted on the show's structural integrity, even to the point of losing gags that were crowd-pleasers.
"There were so many funny people in the room, so I often ended up in the position of arguing, 'Yes, that gets a laugh there, but it costs us in the next beat,' " Sheinkin said. "It was at first a struggle to say, 'A laugh isn't always good.' "
She may have stripped away some shtick, but Sheinkin's script still maintains a remarkably loose, improvisatory tone. There are a few moments of outright ad lib at each performance, and the presence of three audience volunteers, invited onstage to compete in the bee, keeps the show unpredictable.
"We had somebody who won the National Spelling Bee as a volunteer one night, and we couldn't get her out," Saltzberg said. "It becomes a theatrical experience. You're not just sitting and watching it. The audience really is another character in the show."
To develop their own characters, the cast members drew partly on their childhood memories. Feldman, for instance, had been a spelling bee also-ran, thanks to her rendering "bruise" as "b-r-u-z-e." But when director Lapine came on board to shape the show's off-Broadway run, the actors had to dig a little deeper than wordplay.
"When I saw them in Barrington, they were working too hard," Lapine said. "So I just worked with them to take away mannerisms and tried to get them in touch with how kids behave -- the sensibility of kids versus just their tics." One unpopular exercise was to make the actors drop their invented characters and do the whole show simply as 12- and 13-year-old versions of themselves. "That made them crazy, because they couldn't hide. I said, 'I gotta know who you are before I can help you become them.' "
Admitted Saltzberg, "Of course, we were petrified. No lisps, no nothing, you'd just be doing it, and you'd start crying, because it actually was you keying into your own background and your own feelings. By Day 3, we were like, 'Please, let us go back to our crutches!' "
"They were very relieved when they could go back to their characters," Lapine said. But the exercise was not for nothing, he added: "The thing about theater is that no matter what roles they play, the actors have to bring themselves to the stage. If you're hiding behind a role, the audience can feel it; in musicals, you see a lot of that."
Lapine, like Finn, is best known for personally driven work, particularly as a director-playwright on musicals with Finn and with Stephen Sondheim. What was it, then, about this scrappy little improv show that persuaded him to come on board?
"I just had a gut feeling about the project, and I thought it would be fun," Lapine said. "It was something I thought I could do better than anyone else. I also frankly thought it could be commercial; I thought, 'If we do this right, it could have a long life.' Usually I don't think of that, which may be why I don't have many long-running shows."
For Finn, the show ultimately did become personal.
"I felt what the show was going to be about was the incipient horrors of adulthood: This was the first time these people were facing rejection, even though they were smart," Finn said. "And then I realized: 'No, this is the first time these people find other people like themselves, and they know they're not going to be alone for the rest of their lives.' That's the great joy of the show, and it came as a total surprise. I was expecting it to be a mean little show, but it's about the delights of finding people they can grow up with. They all feel alone, and all of a sudden they're not alone, just because of this stupid spelling bee. That's what's so delicious."
"That's what the collaboration was like too," Sheinkin added. "It's been this group endeavor. You're starting out in it for yourself and fighting for your victory, but the actual strength of it is that we're all doing it together."
Saltzberg knows that Wasserstein, who died last year, would have approved.
"Wendy used to say that what's so great about the show is that it was a group of friends that got together and worked on it, and then this other group of friends came in on another level and really nurtured it along. I like that the spirit behind it continues in the actual show."
The creators and characters of "Spelling Bee" give an unexpectedly empowering spin to an old saw: It's not what you know but who you know that counts, even if it's just a phone number stuffed in your handbag.
`The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'
Where: Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: June 17
Price: $28 to $83
Contact: (213) 365-3500
Credit: Special to The Times