The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun and funny Broadway musical, but it’s been running for more than two years at the Circle in the Square theater after an Off Broadway run at Second Stages. So what brought Bill Clinton — who could presumably get tickets to the newest, most in-demand shows — to Friday night’s performance? “My mother-in-law — Hillary’s mother — wanted to see something uplifting,” the former president told us after the final curtain. “My daughter had already seen it, so she suggested we all go.” It was Dorothy Rodham’s 88th birthday, and she took in the show — about awkward teens competing for the spelling title — with her son-in-law, her granddaughter, and Chelsea’s boyfriend, Mark Mezvinsky.
The show can get a bit risqué, typically in the sentences judges use to contextualize the words to be spelled, and Clinton placed his hand over his face at some of those lines, masterfully concealing his reaction from the audience when something too crude or politically charged came from an actor’s mouth. He stayed stoic during flippant jokes about the word “Mexican” and was studiously impassive during a limerick denouncing the current president’s unruliness and spelling skills. But some moments got full-fledged presidential laughs, like when an audience member invited onstage was asked to spell “vermeil.” “Had he known that his official duties would include selecting a china pattern to match the vermeil tableware,” said Mo Rocca, playing the vice-principal, “Billy never would have supported his wife’s candidacy.” And, of course, when one character says that her goal is to become “secretary of education under President Chelsea Clinton,” the whole audience roared its approval. —Shira Levine