Dec 04, 2017

TV's popular animated show proves the value of optimism as the franchise expands to the stage.

More than a decade ago, Nickelodeon began to explore the idea of bringing SpongeBob SquarePants’ layered humor and offbeat atmosphere to Broadway. Even executives of the network were skeptical. “We said, ‘If we can find somebody who can do to SpongeBobwhat was done to The Lion King on Broadway, then we can go ahead,’” says Cyma Zarghami, president of Viacom’s Nickelodeon Group. “But if we can’t find that, we’re not doing it.”

The network has every reason to want to expand SpongeBob. In an era defined by disruption across the media and entertainment industries, the 18-year-old franchise has endured. It remains one of the most popular animated TV programs, with reruns and new episodes attracting millions of viewers. Bolstered by a fanbase of kids and adults in more than 200 countries, the show has been translated into more than 50 languages and onto everything from feature films to Band-Aids to high fashion runways. There’s even an entire internet subculture devoted to SpongeBob memes.

To bring the series to the stage, the goal was to portray the whimsy and optimism of the franchise without being literal. Like successful reimaginations previously, including the 2014 film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water that included a live-action section, it needed to bring some originality to the characters to satisfy die-hard fans and those unfamiliar with the franchise. “We wanted something that captured the essence of SpongeBob,’” says Zarghami.

Nickelodeon found it in Director Tina Landau’s vision, which formally opens as SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical at the Palace Theater on Dec. 4. “I said at the beginning, ‘I want it to feel like a cross between a party, a roller coaster ride, and an art installation,’” says Landau, who initially declined to take part in the pitch process but was impressed after researching its creator Stephen Hillenburg and watching more episodes.

Pool noodles for a post-modern edge

Her concept was to develop an interactive experience. The set would be immersive, and the score would be created by pop music heavyweights to give it a sophisticated, post-modern edge that would match the spirit of the franchise (a thought inspired by the soundtrack of 2004’s SpongeBob SquarePants Movie).

A two-week movement workshop with actors, dancers, clowns, jugglers, and circus performers kicked off what would become years of development. One assignment: find a partner and create a 30-second sequence of how SpongeBob might cross the stage. Pool noodles, rafts, boxes, and scuba gear were strewn around the room to set the mood. Actors were encouraged to use them in scenes. Landau was presented with a range of ideas, from using puppets to working with scale and shadows.

Four years and a few workshops later, the show debuted in Chicago last year. It’s a rock concert-meets-circus production, focused on SpongeBob’s efforts to save his underwater home from volcanic destruction.

The score features songs from musical fans of the show, including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and David Bowie. Characters have been realized with care; SpongeBob lacks a sponge, but bears his trademark suspenders and tie; Sandy Cheeks, SpongeBob’s brainy squirrel friend, has an afro instead of an airtight helmet; And Pearl Krabs, the giant sperm whale, exudes largess with platform sneakers.

Optimism for a generation

During a recent Broadway preview, adults in the audience cheered and clapped for the characters as if they were members of their favorite band. To this generation of fans—who first embraced the series’ escapism in the wake of 9/11—SpongeBob is as familiar as any other franchise hero. According to Nielsen, 33 percent of SpongeBob’s audience is between ages 18 to 49.    

The set, by Fun Home designer David Zinn, includes an elaborate volcano comprised of Rube Goldberg machines, boxes, and ladders. The sides of the stage are packed with swimming pool noodles, lobster traps, cardboard boxes and a bicycle. Underwater creatures swing from the ceiling and parade across the stage with iridescent costumes and colorful pompadours.

“We experimented like crazy to figure out a visual vocabulary of the show,” says Landau. “I believe that the best job I can do as a director is create a space where anything is possible…My feeling is, let’s look at all performance styles and consider everything because that’s the way the show is. It’s logic born out of illogical combinations.”