He writes the songs; they spell the words

Published March 27, 2007

William Finn comes to the phone huffing and puffing. He has just finished a morning workout with his personal trainer at home in New York.

"It's one of the only luxuries I have in my life," says Finn, who wants to lose some weight. "Thank you to Spelling Bee."

There's nothing like a hit show to turn a songwriter's life around so he can afford things like a personal trainer. That's what happened to Finn, who wrote the music and lyrics for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which celebrates its second anniversary on Broadway in May and has a national tour that stops in Tampa this week.

For many years, Finn, 55, was something of a cult figure, a brilliant lyricist and composer whose work had a small but devoted audience. He did win a pair of Tony Awards for Falsettos, his trilogy on gay and Jewish themes, but that was 15 years ago. Subsequent shows - A New Brain and Elegies - were wonderfully funny and touching, but they had modest success.

Then a friend, the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, told Finn about a small improvisational show on spelling bees that her nanny was appearing in and suggested he look into it as the basis for a musical. After he watched a video of it, Finn agreed and recruited playwright Rachel Sheinkin to write the book.

"It's a show I felt that I'd been waiting for my whole life, because it's commercial without being irritating," Finn says. "It's about competitions, which I love. It's about smart people, whom I love. It's about outsiders, whom I love. It's like Survivor for nerds."

Spelling Bee, which won two Tonys, brings together a group of adorable misfits to battle it out over words like "boanthropy," "chimerical" and "weltanschauung." Finn's style is deceptively simple in numbers like the title song "the first song I wrote just to see if I could get the sound of the show" and My Friend, the Dictionary.

The musical is likely to have a long life after the Broadway and touring productions are finished as a staple of high school and college theater programs. "And even elementary schools," adds Finn, who has been pleasantly surprised at how many schools stage Falsettos these days. "It's when your things are done at colleges that people really begin to know you. They grow up with you."

Carving out a career

Finn, who grew up in Natick, Mass., graduated from Williams College, where he won the Hutchinson Fellowship in musical composition, just as Stephen Sondheim did when he was a student there some 25 years earlier. Like other composer-lyricists of his generation, Finn has labored in the very large shadow of Sondheim, but he has also carved out a distinctive place for himself with songs that have become classics.

Elegies, Finn's 2003 show on love, loss and remembrance, includes the song that he considers the best he has ever written, Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving. Sung by Michael Rupert on the CD, it's a witty, affectionate homage to Mark Thalen, a lawyer who died of AIDS.

"Mark was a political activist of sorts, an operagoer and great friend," Finn says. "He was seminal in my life. He introduced me to the guy I've lived with for 27 years."

Autobiographical and highly specific, with lyrics mentioning people like the late film director Bill Sherwood (Parting Glances) and actor Steve Buscemi, the song captures a moment in time in the gay community before AIDS.

"I wrote down the opening lines, which don't sound revolutionary: 'Every Thanksgiving Mark made his all-male Thanksgiving dinner,' and it just laid out the whole tone of the piece," Finn says. "It was the perfect place for me to then start writing this very complicated song."

Finn wrote much of Elegies around the time of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, and he was clearly inspired.

"I was writing way above my head on that show, and I knew it at the time," he says. "I just wish I could recapture it. I was writing so effortlessly. It was like my moment of divinity."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.


fast facts

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

The musical opens tonight and runs through Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $32.50-$68.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org.

To hear songs from the musical, go to www. spellingbeethe musical.com and click on "Audio/Visual."