‘Putnam County’ Goes G-A-Y

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It is a question handed down since the time of the pharaohs, or at least since the time of Joseph: How is gay night at a Broadway musical different from all other nights? The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee — already a not-ungay show, featuring both a character with two dads and music and lyrics by William Finn, who wrote and composed the pioneering gay musical Falsettos — attempted to find out yesterday, with a special "gay night" performance.

Lesson No. 1: The "gay" show is pretty much the same as the usual show — just, this time, with a few gay gags thrown in. A usual running gag is the unexpected sentences judges offer to contextualize words. "In the schoolyard, Billy protested that he wasn't cockeyed," goes a favorite. "'I suffer from strabismus,' he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder." Last night, though, the first sentence was, "Seeing the immense size of the capybara" — the largest rodent — "Richard Gere said, 'Sign me up!'" When the first audience volunteer was called up — Colin Godwin, a 41-year-old Jersey City sales rep — the bee's chirpy moderator introduced him as the originator of his high school's prom theme, "Apple Martinis and Astroglide." Welcome to gay night.

Lesson No. 2: The crowd is different. It wasn't your usual Manhattan sophisticates and Middle American tourists in the lobby of the Circle in the Square last night. Instead, it was a crowd of excited, mainly suburban-looking gays. "I have a friend whose first show was Naked Boys Singing," we overheard someone saying on our way in, "and all he had to put in his Playbill bio was that he won Best Three-Way in the gay-porn awards." Next to us, once we were seated, a critic from the weekly gay rag Next snarkily noted how many guys in the chilly theater were accessorizing their muscle tees with woolly scarves.

Lesson 3: Gays can get nervous performing in front of a crowd, too. Godwin, the first volunteer, got the word taffeta. (As in, the moderate explained, "Why so much Chardonnay and taffeta on your expense account, Governor McGreevey?") Godwin spelled it "t-a-f-a-t-a," making him the first of the three audience member-volunteers to be eliminated. After the show, he blamed stage fright. "Of course I know how to spell taffeta," he said. "I sew." Of course. —Tim Murphy