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Musical ‘SpongeBob’ primed for his Chicago debut

Ethan Slater (center) stars as the title character in "The SpongeBob Musical." | PHOTO BY

The proof exists: You can move an animated princess, a mermaid, an ogre and even a lion cub to Broadway. But what are the chances of survival for a deep-sea sponge assuming human form on a theater stage?


When: Through July 10

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $33 – $100

Info: (800) 775-2000;

Of course if that sponge happens to be an energetic, optimistic guy by the name of SpongeBob SquarePants — who lives in a sea pineapple in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom, and is happy as a clam working as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab — the chances for success increase exponentially. It also cannot hurt if this SpongeBob guy and his neighbors happen to be part of what, since their arrival as part of an animated television series on the Nickelodeon channel in 1999, has become a global phenomenon. You really can’t argue with a show seen in 185 countries, translated into more than 50 languages, and now generating about $8 billion a year in retail sales for licensed merchandise. That’s a whole lot of $10 bill Hamiltons.

Yet, as the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical” prepares to debut June 19 at the Oriental Theatre, the question must be asked: Can a show that one friend described as “the thing you and your kids watch in pajamas while lounging on a couch, or you and your dorm-mates watch after smoking a particular sort of cigarette,” command Broadway attention?

Danny Skinner (from left) plays Patrick, with Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Ethan Slater as SpongeBob in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Danny Skinner (from left) plays Patrick, with Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks and Ethan Slater as SpongeBob in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)

For director Tina Landau, who co-conceived the show — and readily admits that as a child she “wanted to be either an oceanographer or a director, because both offered the chance of being in an alternate universe,” the question was quite different.

As she confesses: “When my agent first called me and asked if I’d be interested in talking to the producers [Nickelodeon, with Sony Music Masterworks and The Araca Group] I said ‘not really,’ because what came to mind was actors in big, puffy theme park-style costumes and lots of kiddie humor. But then I began to think of the world view of the whole SpongeBob show, and realized: There is really something antic, surreal, psychedelic and unexpected about it, and if I could tap into that it might be great.

“I went into the initial meeting, which was eight years ago (it took me a year and a half to actually get the job) — with some skepticism. And along the way, I even learned that Stephen Hillenburg, the marine biologist and animator who created ‘SpongeBob,’ wasn’t a big fan of Broadway musicals. But gradually I began to see how SpongeBob’s world view, which is so endearing, could be useful to me — and how maybe I could open it up and make it a little hipper in a new way, while not altering the essential spirit of the original.”

“There was no existing story; the producers began by talking to directors rather than writers,” said Landau. “And the first thing I needed to address was: What would SpongeBob look like? So I brought in some collage boards and talked about my visual approach. The next step in the process was a workshop that dealt with the physicality of the show. Then came the story, with a book by Kyle Jarrow. It was a year later that we began thinking about the music, with the idea that the score would feature songs from multiple musicians, rather than a single composer-lyricist.”

“It was for choreographer Christopher Gattelli [who won a Tony Award for his work on “Newsies”], to figure out how the actors would stand and move, and to develop silhouettes that would in some way echo their animated incarnations,” Landau continued. “Set and costume designer David Zinn was brought in to devise an underwater environment that had all the detritus of the ocean floor. All in all, we went through about five labs and workshops, which was the last thing I expected from a corporate entity like Nickelodeon. But they were totally creatively driven.”

One thing Landau knew was that the story had to be more substantial than brief TV episodes in which SpongeBob faces a problem and solves it.

“The musical needed a story that could burn itself through two hours,” said Landau. “We had to devise a high-stakes journey during which audiences could engage with the characters. And we came up with this: Mount Humungous, a volcano near Bikini Bottom, is going to erupt the next day. This gave the characters a reason to behave ‘in extremis,’ and allowed us to explore how a community reacts in the face of something they are very afraid of, and that might annihilate them. We even added a few new characters to the mix.”

When it came to the music, Landau and Jarrow knew which moments in the story needed songs, and compiled a dream list of composers, figuring out who might be a good match for each moment. Nearly all who were approached were eager to participate, so the score features original songs by: Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Dirty Projectors, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, John Legend, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, and They Might Be Giants and T.I. There’s even a lesser known David Bowie song, “No Control,” that was repurposed for the show.

“There is a moment when SpongeBob, Sandy Cheeks and Patrick Star realize they must work as a team, so we needed a really buoyant, anthemic rock song about being a hero, and we went to Cyndi Lauper,” said Landau. “Some of the songs came back to us with full orchestrations, one was just sung into a cell phone, another was beautifully recorded with piano and voice. All of them sounded like the particular artist, so the world of the show is built form collisions of style and genre, but the production as a whole is cohesive in its variety.”

Music supervisor Tom Kitt’s job was to devise the orchestrations and arrangements, tweaking the submissions as necessary.

“The composers were so creative, so intuitive,” said Kitt, who recalls watching TV episodes of “SpongeBob” with his 11-year-old son that left them both laughing. “We wanted SpongeBob’s songs to have the pensive, determined quality of his character. But when we needed a kind of maniacal song with a patter sensibility we went to T.I. and his hip-hop world. The show has a small orchestra, with the musicians in the pit, but also moving all over the place. It’s a great experiment, and I think people who try to identify the artists without looking at the program might be surprised.”

For book writer Jarrow the challenge was “writing into so many different songwriters’ work, and finding the voices of the characters that were more human than the heightened animated ones.”

“When I first came on board Tina showed me all these giant poster boards she had made with references to everything from Salvador Dali to Laurel and Hardy and Looney Tunes,” Jarrow said. “But ultimately what we have is something like ‘Our Town’-meets-Armageddon — a look at the ways in which a community responds to a crisis, with a lot of the action motivated by fear, although there is much that is funny, too. And there is SpongeBob himself — the eternal optimist. He reminds me of a friend of mine who believes things will always work out, which is both crazy and inspiring.”

Gavin Lee plays Squidward in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Gavin Lee plays Squidward in the world premiere of “The SpongeBob Musical.” (Photo: Joan Marcus)