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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

A group of grade school misfits goes for the gold in this winning musical comedy.

Jay Reiss

Age: 37

Hometown: Plainview, Long Island. When asked his thoughts on growing up on L.I., Reiss responds with a typically dry, "I'm against it. I recommend it to no one."

Currently: Making his Broadway debut as terminally unhip Vice Principal Panch, administrator of theThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one of the season's surprise hits.

The Reluctant Star: Spelling Bee marks Reiss's New York stage debut as an actor, but don't look for a sophomore effort anytime soon. "This is my debut and farewell," he says. "It's my hello and goodbye. I'm a writer. I'm a playwright. I graduated from Juilliard, so my focus needs to be elsewhere." Reiss became involved with the piece through its conceiver and his now fiancée Rebecca Feldman. "They were doing the show downtown, and she said, 'Do you want to be in it?' I said, 'I don't know,' because for me, the worst part of acting is memorizing lines. We happened to be watching a spelling bee on TV--It was that time of year when they have them on ESPN and channels like that--and I saw this guy reading his lines from cards. I thought that I could do that." While it's an incredible feat of luck to make the move from off-Broadway to Broadway success, it's almost unheard of to do it with your first serious acting credit. "Believe me," Reiss says with a laugh, "My actor friends are mad at me enough. They call to say, 'This is ridiculous!' Broadway does have a certain thing to it, a certain feeling. People ask for your autograph, and they come from all over the country. I mean, it's just tons of fun to get laughs from 650 people, and I'm totally grateful. The gestalt!"

Sweet, Sweet Power:"Acting is very fun," Reiss says, "But it's also a little hard, because you're the last person on the decision-making roster. There's no power for the actor, you know? I was with the cast one time, and I said, 'I don't know how you people deal with this!' But there are ways to go sideways and get around and get what you want into your performance. But, of course, I got a writing credit, so I don't have to answer to anybody on the sentences." The sentences he's referring to, of course, are the definitions for each word in the bee, which have provided some of the season's heartiest laughs. "When we did the show downtown, it was all improv," Reiss recalls. "It's interesting to see how they've grown and expanded. If you look at old tapes, I know the definition for 'phylactery' started there... In rehearsals, I would give them the filthiest sentences I could think of, just to crack everyone up. I gave one during the show recently that got a strange response. It was a racial joke--Well, not racial, it was about Jews. And hello, I wrote it and I'm a Jew!"

Learning Curve: "As a writer, I've always been good about listening to actors," Reiss says. "But this experience has taught me a lot. If an actor has a problem, you can't assume that they just don't get it. If something's not right, then the writer can look at it and fix it. It's an opportunity to make it better. If something's not right, even if it's just blocking, you can just feel it. It's actors' intuition." As much as he's learned about the actor's perspective, Reiss may not need much advice about being a writer, having just sold his first screenplay, a comedy called Lonny The Great, to Warner Brothers. "It's the best news in a long time," he says, "And the best cash."

Tony Night Memories: The Reverend Al Sharpton, not one usually associated with Broadway musicals, wowed the crowds at this year's Tony Awards ceremony by taking the stage to join the Bee cast as their guest speller. "It was all very campy," Reiss recalls. "[Producer] David Stone and [director] James [Lapine] walked him through it, and we, the cast, met him like five minutes before we were going on. We all shook hands and told him to enjoy it, and that we thought he was hilarious on Saturday Night Live. He was a total pro. When he came out, he was so deadpan! What a showman!" When thinking back on the night's fondest moment, Reiss says, "We got together as a cast, and we were like, 'Let's try to make an impact with our rinky-dink show!' We got on the elevator after our number to go upstairs to the dressing rooms. We get off, and the cast of Spamalot was there, and they're all in chain mail-- you know, Hank Azaria's there and stuff--and they applauded for us. It was very warming to the heart."

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