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Spelling Bee’s H-O-M-E-C-O-M-I-N-G

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Finn in downtown Pittsfield, where he feels right at home

William Finn has travelled from Broadway to the Berkshires and back again many times. Now he’s here with his Tony Award winning musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which has returned to its birthplace, Barrington Stage Company (where it plays through July 12.)  Finn first musicalized Spelling Bee (which began as a concept by Rebecca Feldman ) in Sheffield, MA, in the winter of 2004.  He had gotten to know and admire Barrington Stage’s artistic director, Julianne Boyd, in 2002, when BSC staged a flawless rendition of his Tony Award winning Falsettos in the Mt. Everett Regional School auditorium. When the Spelling Bee project came along, Finn decided that Barrington Stage would be the ideal creative partner. In the Berkshires, far removed from the backbiting New York theater world, he could work without worrying about gossip and other distractions.

Spelling Bee would be a life-changing collaboration for Boyd and Finn. After the initial winter workshop, Spelling Bee was staged in the summer of 2004 on BSC’s Stage II, which was then located at the Mt. Everett cafeteria.  It was pure magic, and the buzz reached the Broadway gossips and dozens of producers trekked up from the city to check out the show. By January 2005, it was opening Off Broadway at Manhattan’s Second Stage. By May, it was opening on Broadway, giving Barrington Stage a new high profile as a regional theater (with a potentially lucrative annuity) and providing Finn with a new artistic home. Bolstered by the success of Spelling Bee, Barrington Stage bought a crumbling 1912 vaudeville theater in Pittsfield in 2005 and soon relocated to the gentrifying city.  Julianne Boyd purchased a striking Victorian house within walking distance of the theater, and she and Finn dreamed up the Barrington Stage Musical Theater Lab for the Stage II. The concept was simple: Three or four promising musicals would be fully (but economically) staged over the summer, and the young and relatively inexperienced creative teams would have Finn as their dramaturge and artistic adviser. 

This summer, Finn is giving The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, (which had a workshop production last summer)  a full-blown Stage II production as well as producing My Scary Girl and See Rock City and Other Destinations. He gets a charge working with young artists. “I love their arrogance and stupidity, and their eventual acceptance of my ideas—I love that most,” he says. “Most of them despise me because I tell them what they need to do.” He says he and Boyd are unified in their tough love approach. “We are totally unsympathetic to their problems and totally sympathetic to the needs of the work.” But Finn has his eye on the Main Stage too, where Spelling Bee is having its first regional-theater production since Broadway. (Spelling Bee has already been produce in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, but Finn was not thrilled with what he say. “It was interesting but not to my liking,” he says). Though he was consulted about the casting for Barrington Stage’s Spelling Bee, he tries to stay away from rehearsals. “There’s only so much they can stand of me without my becoming a nuisance,” he says. Is he ever tempted to rewrite lyrics? “No, but I should. I’m too lazy.”

Finn is besotted with unprepossessing Pittsfield—he bought a house across the street from Boyd’s—and he is especially fond of the restaurants. “I love Elizabeth’s which is run by Tommy, where you can never get a reservation and where you have to pay with cash,” he says. “For meat, I like La Fogata and everything at Reva’s is special.” But nothing compares to The Lantern (a block from the Stage II theater) which is a cross between a working man’s saloon and luncheonette. “Everyone I take there says the same thing—it has the best grilled cheese sandwich they ever tasted! I think I have figured out their secret,” he says with a mischievous grin. “They lace the food with heroin. That has to be the explanation!”

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 06/12/08 at 02:20 PM • Permalink