William Finn, creator of Falsettos, never lettered in anything. Which is why he's fascinated by ''stupid competitions, from football games to beauty contests. Anything where there's a winner.'' The 52-year-old sighs like a house settling on deeply neurotic foundations. ''I find losers more interesting than winners. But I prefer to hang around with the winners. It's just more fun. That's what's depressing.''
What's less depressing is that Finn's newest musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is looking like a champ. Currently running Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre, Bee is a tuneful menagerie of misfit achievers vying to please their parents and, more problematically, themselves. (Broadway producers are already abuzz.) The show was born of a 2003 Improv lark called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, conceived by Rebecca Feldman and the theater group The Farm, whose creations included principled superchild Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. That role's originator, Sarah Saltzberg, happened to be playwright Wendy Wasserstein's nanny, and Wasserstein suggested the show to Finn. Inspired, he teamed with book writer Rachel Sheinkin (one of his former students at NYU, where he teaches his craft), and ditties like ''Magic Foot'' and ''My Unfortunate Erection'' followed.
''I do nothing but write songs,'' honks Finn in his erratic baritone. ''I have the smallest parameters of anyone I know.'' He's been doing it professionally since In Trousers, his 1981 debut, which he chased with March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, chronicles of quirky Gothamites in the AIDS-and-Reagan '80s. The shows were combined as Falsettos for a 1992 Broadway run, Finn's first and only. Since then, he's written only one full-length stage show (1998's A New Brain).
''He's wonderfully bizarre,'' Sheinkin lovingly reports. ''He's probably motivated by reason as well, but he's especially inspired by rhyme.'' Finn calls it ''trying to write from the right place, so that everything that's funny comes from the same place as everything that's serious. It's the part of you that's willing to deal with the truth about everything.'' He stops, and looks suddenly defeated. ''Oh, that sounds so dreadful. This is why I write songs.''