Director Tina Landau previews the big stage debut of the world's most famous sponge.
Who lives, who dies, who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Broadway (and Chicago) will soon welcome a character almost as prolific as Alexander Hamilton, and decidedly more nautical nonsense-based.
Newcomer Ethan Slater has been cast as the absorbent, yellow, porous protagonist of The SpongeBob Musical, the forthcoming stage adaptation of Nickelodeon’s cherished cartoon and behemoth media franchise. As co-conceived and directed by Steppenwolf member Tina Landau, The SpongeBob Musical (which makes its world premiere in Chicago in June) will attempt to bring the toon icon and his cast of undersea friends — including starfish Patrick, octopus Squidward, and deep sea-diving squirrel Sandy — above the water and onto the proscenium in a traditional musical of very non-traditional circumstances.
With his sing-song voice and perpetual sunniness, SpongeBob Squarepants lends himself to starring in a musical; with his bright yellow hue, square head, and literal being a sponge, he’s perhaps less natural to do so looking like an ordinary human being.
In 2008, Nickelodeon hired Landau from a pool of directors who pitched conceptual approaches to bring the children’s character to the stage. Landau’s winning concept involved non-literal but suggestive character design (see: the key art above, showcasing the very human Slater’s passing link to the very non-human sponge), an imaginative plundered playground setting, and a proprietary stage movement vocabulary.
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“Before there was even a story, from very early on we did movement and physical workshops to explore the idea of whether we could really create these characters onstage without using literal representations of what they look like in the cartoon,” Landau tells EW. “The DNA is the same but the form is so radically different, we’re not approaching it literally. We’re not trying to take the cartoon and put it onstage. We’re trying to create a live theatrical event.”
From there, playwright Kyle Jarrow came aboard to craft the story: The SpongeBob Musical follows a day in the fictional underwater town of Bikini Bottom, where the citizens have just learned that a nearby volcano named Mount Humongous will erupt at sundown the next day. Amid the antics and fantasies of the community over the ensuing 24 hours, SpongeBob takes it upon himself to save the day and rescue his city from certain destruction. It’s an original story not pulled from the television series, says Landau.
Joining principal characters SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Plankton, Mr. Krabs, and Gary (a surprising bit of stagecraft) are many peripheral characters from the series, though not every citizen of Bikini Bottom will get their Equity card (Mrs. Puff and Old Man Jenkins made the cut; Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy did not). Slater, who graduated from Vassar in 2014, will be joined in the cast by Lilli Cooper as Texan squirrel Sandy Cheeks, as well as an ensemble of theater veterans including Gaelen Gilliland, Curtis Holbrook, Stephanie Hsu, L’ogan J’ones, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Mark Ledbetter, Kelvin Moon Loh, Vasthy Mompoint, JC Schuster, Abby C. Smith, and Jason Michael Snow. Additional casting is on the way.
The decision to keep the characters human and not opt for puppetlike conceits (seen in similar toon-to-Tony adaptations like The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, both from competitor Disney) was a creative decision network-approved and kid-tested. “We brought in different age groups and were most worried they were going to say, ‘But he’s not square!’” she recalls of previewing SpongeBob’s human concept to the core audience. “The main response was, ‘We finally got to see him in real life.’ They loved it. They felt they were getting to spend time with him in his authentic form.”
Landau describes the entire production as “scrappy, inventive, and wacky”; the design aesthetic of SpongeBob’s world is forged from found objects on the ocean floor. “It’s the same way that Bikini Bottom is,” she points out, citing Dadaism. “There’s a bucket, and someone says, ‘That’s a restaurant,’ and so it’s [Plankton’s restaurant] the Chum Bucket. In our production, you might have a cluster of pool noodles and someone can say, ‘Look at that kelp,’ and it’s kelp. It’s a lot of unexpected materials that create our own makeshift, colorful, psychedelic world of Bikini Bottom.”
In a sense, the same rummaged juxtaposition applies to the production’s original music, which pulls dozens of accomplished singer-songwriters into one cohesive score, shepherded by music supervisor Tom Kitt (Next to Normal). Along with Nickelodeon’s music department, the musical’s creators wrangled a bouncy roster from Cyndi Lauper and the Flaming Lips to Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Panic! at the Disco, and Lady Antebellum — as well as a song from the late David Bowie.
Landau presented each songwriter with plot and lyric prompts, essentially taking an informed but risky guess in assigning each musical act a very specific story beat: T.I. has written a nihilistic, rabble-rousing rap for Plankton akin to “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man. They Might Be Giants gives Squidward his big dance number involving a chorus of tap-dancing sea anemones. John Legend penned a ballad — though Landau clarifies that the only romance in the show is between Plankton and his computer wife. “We very specifically asked all of the artists to write how they write, and not try to do what they think Nickelodeon or SpongeBob would sound like,” Landau adds. “What’s amazing is, when we hear them sung by our performers, you can tell exactly who wrote which song. We really wanted that difference.”
The SpongeBob Musical begins its world premiere performances on June 7 at Broadway in Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. From there, the limited engagement runs through July 3, 2016, and a Broadway run is thereafter expected in the 2016-17 season.
SpongeBob’s musical future could have veered any number of creative directions, but Landau is confident in the imaginatively designed, incongruously scored approach she and Nickelodeon have honed over the past seven years — or 17, if you consider SpongeBob’s journey to Broadway began when the character first debuted back in 1999. Landau hopes her production honors the most important ingredients of the world inhabited by the iconic pop culture pore-bearer.
“When we first talked to Steve Hillenburg, the creator of SpongeBob, I said to him, ‘What is absolutely essential to this world?’ recalls Landau. “And he said, ‘The light, the sky flowers—and bubbles.’”