Students preview “Word Nerd” musical at American National Crossword Puzzle Tournament
Students performed the first act of the musical Word Nerd at the 44th annual American National Crossword Puzzle Tournament on Sunday.
Courtesy of Will Wegner
A few hours before cruciverbalist Tyler Hinman won his seventh American National Crossword Puzzle Tournament this Sunday, Yale students performed the first act of the musical Word Nerd on the same stage.
In many ways, the ACPT is the ideal audience for the student-written musical, which revolves around a crossword competition game show and features a protagonist that co-book writer Will Wegner ’23 described as an “amalgamation of Alex Trebek and Will Shortz.”
“It was great,” Will Shortz told the News. “I was just blown away by the talent, blown away by the writing. The music was great. I would like to just read the lyrics because there’s so many clever rhymes.”
Shortz, the longtime crossword editor of the New York Times, founded the ACPT in 1978 and still directs the tournament each year. The oldest and largest crossword puzzle tournament in the country and the subject of the 2006 documentary Wordplay, the ACPT was held in Stamford, CT, on April 3.
Competitors in the ACPT solve puzzles during seven rounds of competition throughout the weekend and are scored by judges on their accuracy and speed. In the final round, which took place Sunday, the top three competitors in each of the tournament’s three divisions solve an oversize crossword on stage at the front of the tournament room, wearing noise-blocking headphones so that commentators can narrate the gameplay.
When Wegner learned that the tournament was held so close to Yale, he looked into spectator tickets in the hopes of attending to conduct research for the production. Tickets, however, proved too expensive for Wegner to purchase for himself and other members of the production — spectator tickets for the weekend-long event cost $145 apiece. He sent a message through the contact form of the website, asking for discounted tickets to the event and offering, “mostly joking,” that the cast could sing selections from the show for their admission.
To Wegner’s surprise, Shortz responded to the message directly and took him up on his offer. The first act of Word Nerd, Shortz suggested, could replace the talent show that the ACPT traditionally hosts before the final round of competition.
“I offered several times to send him the libretto,” Wegner said. “I was like, ‘If you want, you can see demos or read the book so you know what we’re doing.’ He was like, ‘No, I trust you guys.’”
The musical — which is the senior thesis in Theater and Performance Studies for Wegner, Bibiana Torres ’22, Simon Rabinowitz ’23 and the senior thesis in Music for Griffin Strout ’22 — is not scheduled to open at Yale until April 22.
“I very much come from the improv background, and so I’m very comfortable not having anything prepared, just sort of walking in and being like, ‘Alright let’s make it work,’” Rabinowitz told the News.
The possibility of Shortz accepting their offer, Wegner said, had seemed so far-fetched that he had not even checked the availability of the cast before agreeing to perform. Thus began a logistical scramble of organizing events and transportation.
In the end, all but two of the cast members were able to attend the performance, and the first act of Word Nerd debuted in the ballroom of the Stamford Marriott hotel to tournament participants and spectators.
Word Nerd, which Wegner, Rabinowitz and Charlie Romano ’19 have been writing since this summer, focuses on Bob Otto, a cruciverbalist — someone skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles. As the host of a televised crossword game show, Otto becomes embroiled in a morally questionable ploy to boost ratings, and must weigh his investment in the show surviving against his own sense of professional integrity.
The documentary Wordplay, Wegner said, was one of the first pieces of media they consulted when researching the world of the musical. Writers also worked with Nico Kidd ’22, a cruciverbalist himself who acted as a dramaturge for the production and constructed the crosswords used in the musical’s second act.
“[Wegner] asked me at the very start of last semester, when he was still writing the book, what kinds of things a constructor might do that would get them shunned by the community, like if there are any major faux pas in cruciverbalism,” Kidd told the News. “I gave him a big list.”
Among the faux pas Kidd listed were using the same word in an answer as in a clue and violating what is known as the “breakfast table rule”— if a word is inappropriate for the breakfast table, it is also inappropriate for the crossword.
Torres, the director of the production, told the News that the musical’s writers did meticulous research for the production, especially in writing songs which deal specifically with the mechanics of crossword construction.
“There were some things where this was going to be the only audience that gets this little easter egg, in a way that maybe one crossword devotee is going to get in the real Yale audience,” Torres said. “It was really exciting to see, especially in the song ‘Just a Game,’ Will Shortz’s eyes light up when someone is singing about the very specific techniques of crossword construction.”
The makeup of the audience, Torres said, was also intimidating. Word Nerd, she said, is self-aware in that it lovingly pokes fun at its protagonist’s devotion to cruciverbalism.
The plot of Word Nerd, Torres explained, hinges on producers arguing that people who do crosswords are too nerdy to generate good ratings on television — a difficult pitch to sell in a roomful of people who do crosswords competitively.
Although Wegner added that he had some fears about the audience finding issues with the technical language used to describe crossword construction, he suspected that the audience’s love of crosswords would mean that they were excited to see it reflected in a new medium.
“It’s a wonderful crowd,” Shortz told the News. “[Wegner] told me it will almost certainly be a larger crowd than he will have in New Haven and it could not be a more appreciative crowd.”
Word Nerd, which will run in the Theater and Performance Studies Black Box from April 22-29, was mentioned in the New York Times’ coverage of the ACPT.