“The I Love You Song,” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005)

(Link to the song here)

In just about every musical that wants to be one, there is a song that comes on late in the show and is made to make you hurt a little. Not everyone has to agree on the song in question – in Miss Saigon, is that song Kim’s last lullaby for her son, or is it the Engineer’s fantasy about the American Dream? – but rare is the production which doesn’t want you to have a feel before they wrap things up.

Not every musical wants to be a musical; not all of them want to rely on the music to move the plot and define the characters. Take Disney Renaissance movies, or Tangled and Frozen. They tend to frontload the music and use the second half of the movie to move the plot to its conclusion: before I saw Frozen, I assumed that “Let It Go” was part of the last half-hour rather than the first. Jukebox musicals work this way too, for obvious reasons. If you’re Baz Luhrmann and you have a plot about a writer and a “courtesan,” you have to move the plot someway after forty minutes of “Spectacular Spectacular” and “Elephant Love Medley” and “El Tango de Roxanne.” The music-to-move-plot more or less screeches to a halt in the last half hour. (The “Come What May” reprise might count as the song that makes you hurt; I think it functions better as a finale while viewing the rest of the film as epilogue, but you’re entitled to think otherwise.) Perhaps a better example is Mamma Mia!, where, as varied as ABBA’s catalog is, I’m not sure they ever came up with a song where a woman confronts the fact that she has no clue who her daughter’s father is.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, despite its fairly traditional song-dialogue-song-etc. structure, wants to advance its characters through songs. Each song in the musical talks about some character in some way, and most of the songs are sung by the characters themselves. “I Speak Six Languages” is by, for, and about Marcy. “Woe Is Me” is likewise, likewise, and likewise Logainne. The show comes back again and again to Olive Ostrovsky, though, in a way it doesn’t frequently talk about one character too much. Olive, a shy loner like most of the kids, sings about her friend, the Dictionary, in her first number. The boys are immediately taken with her: “She’s such a lovely girl/With a lovely little voice.” Most of the kids in the spelling bee are victims of their families in one way or another: Leaf is the least of his talented, naturally named siblings; Logainne is wilting under the pressure of her fathers, who push her up to and beyond her limits. The ones who aren’t victimized are victimized by their nascent adulthood: Chip’s sudden foray into puberty, Barf’s Reddit-style oddness. Olive sits between the two.

Olive’s mother is at an ashram in India, Olive says in song. She doesn’t seem cheerful about it, but pleasantly resigned: she’s saved a chair for her mother for symbolism’s sake. Olive’s father is..absent. She’s saved a chair for him, but she has no idea when he might show up. He’s supposed to becoming from work. (He’s also supposed to bring the registration fee for the spelling bee that Olive hasn’t paid.) She gets a call, has to get one of the resident adults to take it, and finds out that her father is running even later than she supposed. Then comes her word: “chimerical.” Gamely, Olive asks for the definition. “Unreal, imaginary, visionary, wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic.” Olive begins to wonder: “If I go to Washington, will I be on my own?/Because if I go to Washington, who will be my chaperone?”

Olive’s mother and father – who are, marvelously, played by the woman running the spelling bee and the man who reads the words – appear. Both of them attempt to assuage her hurt feelings at their absence. Her mother and father both struggle with depression. “I love you./I love you./I love everything about you, dear,” her mother says. Her father joins in: “I love you.”

(Hauntingly, after his first “I love you,” Olive says, “And my dad says:” Nothing makes it more clear that this scene is unreal, imaginary, wildly fanciful.)

I think Dad is angry, Mom, and I do not know what to do./Mama, mama, mama, shanti, shanti, and om/I think he takes out on me/What he wants to take out on you./Mama, mama, mama!/How I wish you were home, how I wish you were home, how I wish you were here.

We find out that Olive is not so game as she appeared at the outset regarding her mother’s absence. Olive had “quietly packed” when her mother was preparing to leave. She wants to know when her mother is coming back. She thinks that her dad is upset with her mother and is, ominously, taking it out on Olive. What that means is kept very ambiguous. Is Olive’s father not coming to the spelling bee because his wife isn’t coming home? I’ve wondered before about what a creative director might do about that: I’ve always thought that an Olive with bruises would be appropriate, if dark as all get-out. Is there sexual abuse that might be implied here? The comfort that Olive’s “parents” provide after this heartbreaking verse: they are proud, they know she’s a winner, raising her from a cub was a joy, “I love you.” None of that speaks to her abiding pain and loneliness; if I were Olive, I don’t think any of those words would assuage me.

I’m not a parent, and I don’t pretend to understand how difficult parenting can be. (It’s difficult. It’s one of the several reasons I’m not a parent.) But I’ve never understood the parent who has children and then leaves them for long stretches of time. Olive is not an orphan; her parents have abandoned her, and that’s something entirely different. This is why I maintain a healthy level of cynicism about every video of a soldier coming home to his or her child or spouse or dog: if love is action and not words, then there is very little that a soldier can do from his or her post to prove any kind of love for the people s/he’s left behind. If we prove who we are through our choices, then the choice to leave one’s child proves that one loves whatever it is one does more than one loves the child. I don’t see reunions in those moments: they are a culminating expression of, “I love some antiquated notion of duty more than my child,” or “I love my job more than my husband” or “I love ‘America’ more than my wife.”

“The I Love You Song” is the story of a girl whose parents love other things more than their daughter. Maybe Olive’s mother loves escapism more than her daughter, just as Olive’s father loves martyrdom more than his daughter. It is entirely possible that Olive’s parents love their daughter, but it is eminently likely that they love something else more. I suppose that’s not the worst sin that someone can commit, but “The I Love You Song” gives voice to every middle schooler who understands, on some level, that their parents picked someone or something else first. In the list of songs that exist in a musical to give the audience feels, there may not be one that does it more touchingly – or with more insinuation – than “The I Love You Song.”

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