Saira Grewal gets a great role as a multitalented spelling bee contestant
San Francisco-born Saira Grewal is no spelling maven, but her debut role is of a Bee contestant in a musical.
Grewal, who is in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says her passion for the arts led her to lead roles in school musicals. Though she always wanted to be on stage, it was hard for her as a minority artist to break through the glass ceiling.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a musical comedy based on a book by Rachel Sheinkin, and has music and lyrics by William Finn. It was conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material provided by Jay Reiss. The show is about a fictional spelling bee set in a geographically ambiguous Putnam Valley middle school.
In an interview with indica News, Grewal, 23, gave credit to her parents for being supportive about her dream, while cautioning her to be realistic enough about the opportunities available. They got her to have a backup plan, one that eventually helped her during the pandemic. So Grewal was working as an accountant when she saw an advertisement in Facebook about the upcoming show. She promptly applied.
Grewal’s mother was a talented dancer who was into Bollywood dance and Punjabi bhangra. That influenced the child, who, began learning those forms along with ballet, tap, and jazz at the age of four, going on to dance at recreational events and competitions. After being chosen to sing a Whitney Houston song in her eighth-grade, she decided to polish up her voice, training to do so in high school and college.
In May 2019, Grewal graduated from American University with a B.A. in musical theater and a double minor in computer science and leadership management.
After graduation, Grewal went on tour with Olney Theater’s National Players. The troupe performed over a dozen shows in various states along the east coast until the pandemic brought everything to a standstill in March 2020.
Grewal says she now sits before a computer, working as an accountant, waiting for things to open up again.
Asked if the role of a spelling bee contestant resonated with her, her being South Asian, Grewal laughed and denied it, while saying she also looked up to those who compete with enviable intensity.
“I admire these young children, she said. “They are really brilliant, intelligent people who have studied something so seriously, it’s admirable, and I respect them.”
Explaining her role, she said she will be playing Marcy Park, a perfectionist.
“She [Park] excels in pretty much everything she does, to the point that she’s almost bored by it,” Grewal said. “She’s very serious and very smart.” Her role calls for a lot of singing (in six languages), dancing, and playing basketball.
Grewal said that because she has been practicing for a year and a half, she is a little nervous about being back on stage again.
Asked why she opted for minors in computer science and business, Grewal was pragmatic. She said that while she was lucky enough to have a theater job for a year before the pandemic, she was not always confident about pursuing a career on stage after college.
“I think I was just trying to be realistic about the industry as a whole,” she said. “It’s really competitive, and a lot of it is based on connections. I don’t come from a family that has connections in the entertainment industry. It’s just super competitive. I mean, the auditioning process. Sometimes it’s not about whether you’re talented or not; it’s about whether you’re what they’re looking for.”
She went on: “It’s more about whether you are what the directors or the producers of the show needs, so maybe there’s no ‘no.’ You’re not suited for this show, or there’s someone else who is more talented or more of what they’re looking for.
“I’ve sometimes struggled with casting. Sometimes I don’t get considered for certain roles. That was more of an issue when I was in high school and college. I still get typecast based on maybe the way I look. That’s changing, now that there’s a huge movement. But yeah, definitely, I’ve been faced in situations where I wasn’t considered for something because I’m Indian.”
Grewal said her family has been her rock.
“My parents are absolutely supportive,” she said. “They have a huge appreciation for theater and musicals, but they’re also, you know, realistic Indian parents. They are, like, you need to be able to support yourself and have a job and be able to feed yourself. So, I work as a full-time accountant. It’s a great way to support myself.”
Asked what her dream character is, Grewal said, “I do love playing a villainous character. I have a darker complexion and darker features. Maybe I’m just good at them, I don’t know…, but villains are always fun to play, and hate on stage.”
The production also includes a novelty not often seen in a Broadway musical: four members of each night’s audience get a chance to shine when they are invited to the stage to compete as spellers during the first act of the show!
“Ever since I saw this show on Broadway, I hoped to get the opportunity to direct it,” said director Jon Rosen. “The spelling bee is a force field of theatricality that champions eccentric young people dealing with the trials and tribulations of adolescence. With great humor, it addresses the challenges that almost every kid faces in feeling that they are just slightly different from everyone else. Most importantly, it leaves us with the understanding that winning isn’t everything and that sometimes even the losers are winners.”
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will run from October 9 to November 7, 2021, at the Children’s Creativity Museum Theater in San Francisco.
Tickets range from $20 to $50, and are available at LandmarkMusicals.com.