In 2005, seven members of the nine-person cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee made their Broadway debuts with the show at the Circle in the Square Theatre—but audiences could see the writing on the wall (...er, floor?): The company was packed with talent. The cast won the Drama Desk for Outstanding Ensemble and the musical was nominated for six Tonys, including Best Musical, and won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical. The grown-up actors playing grammar school spelling prodigies graduated to award-winning and prolific careers. From Emmy nominations to starring roles in the realm of Harry Potter, here are the winners’ destinations:
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Leaf Coneybear
That’s right. Before he was nominated for five Primetime Emmy Awards as the perfectly uptight lawyer Mitchell Pritchett on the long-running Modern Family, Ferguson was a Broadway kid. He originated the role of Leaf Coneybear; who could ever forget his rendition of “I’m Not That Smart?” In between playing half of Mitch and Cam, Ferguson has made time for theatre, starring in Shakespeare in the Park’s A Comedy of Errors alongside Hamish Linklater and as no less than 40 characters in the 2016 revamped version of Fully Committed, for which he won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance.
Read More: JESSE TYLER FERGUSON TALKS ABOUT PLAYING 40 CHARACTERS ON BROADWAY
Dan Fogler, William Barfee
Fogler’s star has only continued to rise since he made his Broadway debut as the magic-footed speller, and won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Since then, Fogler transitioned to the screen, making a splash in comedies like Balls of Fury and Take Me Home Tonight. He’s voiced characters in Kung Fu Panda and Horton Hears a Who! and appeared on multiple television series. But Fogler’s staying success has come with the recent offshoot of the Harry Potter franchise, the Fantastic Beasts film series. As lugubrious Jacob Kowalski in the magical prequel, Fogler played an American No-Maj with loads of heart and humor in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and is set to appear in future movies from the brand.
Lisa Howard, Rona Lisa Peretti
In a moment of perfect synergy, Broadway brought us the stunning vocals and dry wit of Howard—a true star performer whose talents blow us away every time she hits the stage. After closing out the run of Spelling Bee, Howard appeared in Broadway’s South Pacific as Lieutenant Marshall and then in the ensemble of 9 to 5, when she understudied Allison Janney in the role of Violet Newstead. She joined the cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as one of the divas before taking the reins as leading lady in It Shoulda Been You. Her incredible Act 2 showstopper “Jenny’s Blues” proved what she can do, and earned her a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Musical in 2015. Next up: Howard takes center stage as Tammy in the highly anticipated Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical Escape to Margaritaville.
Derrick Baskin, Mitch Mahoney
After wowing the crowd with his smooth and soulful vocals at Circle in the Square, Baskin upped the ante and his high tenor as one of Ursula’s sinister eels (Jetsam) in Disney’s The Little Mermaid on Broadway. Baskin then did a 180 and played Gator in Broadway’s Tony-winning Memphis, a character who didn’t speak after witnessing a horrible event in his childhood—which only made it more impactful when Gator was driven to speak up (and sing out). For the past three years, fans of Hulu’s Difficult People know him as coffee shop owner Nate.
Deborah S. Craig, Marcy Park (recent transfer)
Known as the girl who spoke six languages, Craig made her Broadway debut with Spelling Bee. Though she hasn’t returned to the Broadway stage, she played the recurring roles of Melanie on Six Degrees, waitress Shelley on The CW’s Hart of Dixie, and then Luli Zeng on The Blacklist. She recently sang at the Town Hall benefit concert “Double Standards,” produced by Tony nominee Laura Bell Bundy, and will be seen in three upcoming films: Poor Greg Drowning, the short Baby Bird, and Prince Harming.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, Olive Ostrovsky
This actor made her Broadway debut with Spelling Bee—earning a Tony nomination—and stuck firmly in the theatre. She played Eponine in the 2006 revival of Les Misérables (and earned a Drama Desk nomination) before starring in three leading roles in three consecutive Broadway plays, originating the role of Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher (her second Tony nomination), taking on Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (her third Tony nomination and a Drama Desk win), and Varya in the 2016 adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. Keenan-Bolger has kept busy Off-Broadway, as well, originating the role of Mary in Saved, 2011's A Small Fire, the Encores! concert staging of Merrily We Roll Along,The Oldest Boy, and most recently in Second Stage’s A Parallelogram.
Jose Llana, Chip Tolentino
Llana’s Broadway career has literally gone full circle. Having made his Broadway debut in The King and I as Lun Tha in 1996, Llana’s most recent Main Stem role was as the replacement for the King of Siam in the Lincoln Center Theater production. Before Spelling Bee, Llana replaced for Angel Schunard in Rent on Broadway, and played Jessie-Lee in Street Corner Symphony and Ta in Flower Drum Song. After Spelling Bee—but before The King and I round two—the actor played El Gato in Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland. The actor wowed audiences as Ferdinand Marcos in the Public Theater’s Here Lies Love, starring Ruthie Ann Miles, who would go on to be his Lady Thiang. He also played Orsino in the musical adaptation of Twelfth Night for Shakespeare in the Park. Llana currently plays the King with the national touring company of The King and I, now in Denver and playing cities across the country through August 2018.
Jay Reiss, Douglas Panch
In addition to playing Vice Principal Panch, Reiss wrote additional material for Spelling Bee. Since the show closed, Reiss has followed the writing path. He penned the Julian Farino-directed comedy The Oranges and wrote The Complete History of My Sexual Failures for Universal Studios. His documentary Dare to Be Different is currently in post-production.
Sarah Saltzberg, Logan Schwartzandgrubenierre
After departing Putnam County, Saltzberg collaborated again with Reiss, appearing in The Oranges. She played Daisy on the television series Wallflowers. But Saltzberg veered away from acting and towards writing, as well, penning the Off-Broadway comedy Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage, which ran for two years. After years with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, she now teaches improv to elementary school kids in New York City, but returns to Broadway with Gettin’ The Band Back Together, for which she wrote additional material.
The understudy spellers:
Todd Buonopane has continued to appear in Broadway ensembles for shows such as Grease and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Kate Wetherhead earned fans as multi-role ensemble member in Legally Blonde The Musical, but her biggest claim to fame in theatre is as co-creator of web series Submissions Only. Willis White went on to join the cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony-winning musical In The Heights, while Lisa Yuen was a regular cast member of All My Children for two years.