How 'SpongeBob SquarePants' Sounds Come to Life
Walter Trarbach and Mike Dobson talk about the sound challenges that the musical faces.
“I still resent you for making me put a microphone on a trash can!” jokes SpongeBob SquarePants sound designer Walter Trarbach to his colleague, foley artist Mike Dobson. The jovial pair, who created the aural landscape for the imaginative Broadway adaptation of Nickelodeon’s long-running cartoon series, share a Tony Award nomination for the newly reinstated Sound Design of a Musical category — though their roles on the show are quite different.
As foley designer, Dobson was responsible for the sound effects, which he plays live at each performance. (He’s also a member of the orchestra.) Trarbach had to concoct a sound system that could handle the show’s eclectic score, which is comprised of songs in a variety of musical styles from recording artists ranging from rapper T.I. to alt-rockers They Might Be Giants.
“You need to make sure that the audience experiences the story in the most powerful and impactful way possible,” he tells Billboard. “If you’re doing Jesus Christ Superstar [he was associate sound designer of that show's 2012 Broadway revival] you can basically set it up as a rock and roll sound system. But we needed to have a sound system which could manifest enough power for the number written by, say, Aerosmith, and also that could be sensitive enough [for the John Legend ballad].”
The vast aural scope of the show presented plenty of other challenges, too. Actors are in the house and play musical instruments. There’s tap dancing, which means dancers have microphones tied to their ankles. Even the immersive environment created by David Zinn’s set impacts the nature of the sound inside the theater. “The greatest challenge was just the totality of it,” Trarbach says. “If there’s a sound challenge, we have it.”
Both Trarbach and Dobson have been part of the SpongeBob musical since the first workshop six years ago. At the time Trarbach had never seen an episode, while Dobson was a superfan. “In the early workshops, I was the unofficial dramaturg of the production,” Dobson says. “[The cartoon] is such a gold standard of the use of fun sound effects.”
Dobson plies his craft from the stage of the Palace Theatre, where his “toys and instruments” are set up. Some sound effects have been recorded on a computer program; others are created acoustically with things like a slide whistle, cowbell or the aforementioned trash can. Some of the sounds he scores include the squeak of SpongeBob’s footsteps; the metallic clank of a character popping out of a trash can that’s actually made of cardboard; and the balls that roll through Rube Goldberg machines and drop to the stage to indicate a volcano about to erupt.
“It’s mostly a percussive palette of drums and cowbells and whistles,” Dobson says of scoring the latter. “Then we have these big, very realistic explosions. And the machines are fun because you would assume that they would be the most consistent thing in the show, but they are 100 percent not.” For example, sometimes a ball will bounce four times before it starts to roll; other times only once. “They’re tough to keep up with,” Dobson adds. “There’s a lot of ways the ball can have a little hiccup here or there [that creates] just slightly different timing.”
Dobson also plays percussion in the musical numbers, including Sara Bareilles’ second-act comedic opener “Poor Pirates.” “There’s a lot of trash can on that one,” he says. His favorite moments are when he gets to be musician and foley artist at the same time, like in the Lady Antebellum song “Chop to the Top,” which SpongeBob and Sandy Cheeks sing as they start to climb a mountain to try to stop the volcano from erupting.
“There are a lot of karate moves and boulders falling,” Dobson says. “Some of it lands on the beat and some of it doesn’t. Through that I’m playing some percussion layers in the band, but also half my brain is doing foley.”
Should they win the Tony on June 10, Dobson says the first person he will thank will be SpongeBob director Tina Landau, with whom he also worked on the Bill Irwin-David Shiner off-Broadway comedy Old Hats. “It was such a huge commitment on her part to [foley] being an important part of the show,” he says. “Her vision created this whole show and what we’re doing with sound.”