From November 10-12th, a group of Swarthmore students will perform The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical comedy by William Finn. The musical made its Broadway debut in 2005 to widespread critical acclaim, winning a Tony Award and several Drama Desk Awards.
Swarthmore’s production falls under the musical direction of Shira Samuels-Shragg ‘20, a sophomore with a rich musical history and a preternatural gift for conducting, who also loves to dance. Samuels-Shragg grew up in a musical household, listening to classical music and attending concerts with her family. She began playing piano at a very young age and picked up the viola soon after, but it was in eighth grade that she discovered her love for conducting. She had been working on a project called “Women in Conducting,” and the orchestra director at her school allowed her to continue studying the craft. “There was an ‘aha’ moment where I realized conducting combined my three favorite things: music, dance, and being in charge.” Thus began a fruitful career in orchestral conducting. In 2015, Samuels-Shragg was selected to be one of two inaugural conducting apprentices with Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. The following year she became the first high schooler to be selected as a conducting intern with the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. In the fall of 2017 she conducted part of a concert with Chamber Orchestra First Editions, “a professional ensemble that combines new works with early Mozart.” She currently helps conduct the Swarthmore College Lab Orchestra as part of her studies with Lecturer Andrew Hauze.
Despite working more than 20 hours per week on the production, Samuels-Shragg says directing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has been immensely rewarding. In addition to working with the actors, she says that collaborating with the pit musicians has been especially fulfilling: “We have an all-star team of musicians and they’re cooperative and patient with me. Conducting for theater can be very different from classical orchestral conducting, so it’s been a joy being surrounded by supportive musicians as I figure out what works and what doesn’t.” Although her experience has primarily been in classical orchestral conducting, she says that she has always had a love for musical theater, and that working on this production has reaffirmed her desire to work at least partially in show business. “After Swat I’m planning on going to grad school and then pursuing a career in conducting, so I’m hoping I can find a professional balance between the orchestral and theater worlds.”
Her love for this production is clear: “I’m deeply grateful to be part of this project. It’s been an insane semester of rehearsals, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. We’ve poured so much of ourselves into this show, and I’m proud of the result.”
The November 10th show will be held at 8pm. On November 11th there will be two shows, at 2pm and at 8pm. The last show, on November 12th, will begin at 2pm.
Gabriel Hearns-Desautels ’20