Seas the day: Creating the world of SpongeBob SquarePants for Broadway
By Timothy Rawles, January 2020 Issue.
SquarePants: The Broadway Musical might not be the
first production you would think about standing in line to see. At first, it
doesn’t appear to be as intellectually stimulating as Hamilton or as
disciplined as Dear Evan Hanson, but think again, it has two powerful
Broadway icons behind it and a boatload of Tony nominations.
Playwright Tina Landau co-conceived the
musical stage adaptation of SpongeBob and went on to direct it. But
how does such a symbol of Broadway prominence plunge into a project based on a
Nickelodeon children’s cartoon. At first, she didn’t.
“It took me a moment to get on board with
it,” Landau laughs. “It actually came to me about 12 years ago now when my
agent called and said Nickelodeon was interested in thinking about a SpongeBob
musical and did I want to go in and pitch ideas from it? They were starting
with directors, not writers. And I said, ‘No. I have no interest.’”
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway
Musical follows the titular character as he tries
to save his hometown of Bikini Bottom from impending doom after a foreshock
from an active volcano erupts and endangers the underwater town. Some see the
temblor as an opportunity to swindle the inhabitants while our absorbent hero
tries to be the voice of reason but struggles with self-doubt.
The show was a critical hit when it debuted
on Broadway in December 2017. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2018, SpongeBob
tied as the show with the most nominations that year. David Zinn won for Best
Scenic Design of a Musical.
The show is currently touring the country
and will land at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix on January 31, 2020 for a
limited run. Echo Magazine talked with Tina Landau and David Zinn
about what inspired them to get involved with the show and what changed their
perceptions about making a musical about, of all things, a sponge.
As previously noted, Landau was not excited
about getting involved at first. She had visions of razzmatazz and circus-like
acts filled with giant stuffed animals. To her disdain, she
pictured prosthetic costume pieces, character puppet heads, and in her
words, “some kind of dumbed-down arena show or something.”
“And that’s what I assumed it was going to
be until my agent said, well wait a moment. Steve Hillenburg, the original
creator, is not a fan of Broadway musicals and has only agreed to this if
Nickelodeon could somehow find a way to create it in an ‘indie spirit.’ The
same indie spirit with which he created the original.”
Enter David Zinn, who has worked on set and
costume designs for Broadway’s Fun Home and Dolls House, Part
2 to name a few. He says Landau reached out and asked if he would be on
board with the project.
“She had called me about a couple of other
projects in the past, we didn’t know each other, we knew of each
other. I knew her work obviously,” Zinn explains. “She called me in the spring
of 2012 and said ‘Hey, were doing this workshop on this thing — don’t laugh —
it’s the SpongeBob SquarePants Musical.”
Not exactly a fan of the cartoon, but a
casual viewer, Zinn caught it a few times serendipitously on television. From
what he saw, there was definitely something he could work with.
“I recognized it as sort of operating on
both levels; adult and funny and also for kids. I think the most successful
cartoons are the ones that have been able to operate on both of those levels.”
It was this observation that also caught
Landau’s interest. The jokes in the cartoon were ambiguous enough to get her
“I thought what does that mean? What do they
mean?” she laughs. “So, I started looking into the show and watching it. I had
only seen a couple of episodes. And I came to understand very quickly that the
show is very idiosyncratic and subversive and surprising and surreal and
included so many elements that felt to be so fun and theatrical and fresh. I
really had a conversion.”
Zinn was on board, too. Now all they had to
do is come up with a concept. They were appreciative that Nickelodeon wanted to
stay away from big foam costumes. But that still meant they had to create
something from nothing.
“They didn’t want to do what people
expected,” Landau says. “So, I was grateful for that and began working on it
and grew ever more in love with it as we went.”
Of course, set and costume designs fell on
Zinn who struggled a bit at first.
“He’s a sponge, and he can bend, and he can
do things that cartoons do which is break the laws of physics and move in a
particular way,” Zinn says recalling his creative process. “I sat in the room
with Tina and figured out how to do those things.”
Landau worked on the book with Kyle Jarrow
and together they created something they hope appeals to everyone. They were
even able to make it relevant which wasn’t their intention.
“We didn’t set out to make something that
is topical and timely,” Landau says, “it just so happens that the piece has
become ever more so and I would say it is very much about how community can
turn on itself and divide.”
She recites a lyric from one of the opening
songs with what sounds like pride in her voice: “The town that we hold dear,
for all are welcome.” Landau explains that the world of Bikini Bottom is a
diverse one and that’s thanks to its creator Steve Hillenburg, “he found a way
to express that in the kookiness and variety of his characters.”
Which brings us back to Zinn, who is proud
of the community of Bikini Bottom he created for the stage. SpongeBob
is his biggest scale production in a way that he didn’t quite realize until he
walked into it with an audience and realized he was all over the room.
“I spend a lot of time trying to disappear
myself, and so it was fun and interesting to do SpongeBob, which is kind
of the opposite of that.”
Landau puts it best and probably speaks for
both of them when she says, “I hope we took the lead from the (cartoon) show
and hopefully achieved the same thing which is, yes, it’s accessible and funny
and charming for kids, but there are references and messages and themes that
are interesting and relevant to adults as well.”
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix from January 31, to February 2, 2020.