When it comes to presenting musicals both new and old on Broadway, it can sometimes feel as if every trick in the book has been tried. But now there’s the new SpongeBob SquarePants musical, which, even by today’s turn-traditional-theater-on-its-head standards, is free-thinking: the majority of the score has been written by stars from the world of pop music, including John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Panic! at the Disco, Lady Antebellum, and the Flaming Lips — to name just a few. Even more surprising: that score has turned out not only coherent, but one of the most zanily enjoyable on Broadway right now, and SpongeBob is heading into June 10’s Tony Awards tied with Mean Girls for the most nominations, with 12.
On this week’s Billboard on Broadway podcast, director Tina Landau (who also came up with the show’s concept); musical supervisor, arranger, orchestrator and co-composer Tom Kitt; and star Ethan Slater (who plays SpongeBob) chat about how this unorthodox musical made it to the stage.
Landau, a veteran theater director, was at first not at all sold on the idea of the show when Nickelodeon first approached her years ago. “I said an immediate no,” she recalls. “You hear ‘SpongeBob Musical’ and you go, ‘What? How? Why?’ I had the image of big theme park, arena show characters with big foam heads in my imagination. I knew that was something I wasn’t interested in.”
She changed her mind after learning that the cartoon’s creator only wanted to do the show on Broadway “if it [had] an indie spirit” and there was “a reason to do it as a theater piece.” Says Landau: “When I heard that — and I was given permission to imagine exactly the kind of show I would get into seeing, which was somewhere between an art installation and a rock concert and a party and a great story all wrapped up in one, I thought yes, this is a property that allows for that and in fact invites it.” She started developing ideas, and says the resultant show is “exactly an expression of who I really am.”
It was Landau’s idea to put together a score written by a variety of artists, reflecting the mashup nature of the cartoon’s music, and Kitt’s skills as a composer, arranger and orchestrator were essential in not only translating the contributing artists’ ideas to the stage, but also in creating an overall coherent sound for SpongeBob. “It was my job just to figure out how this was going to be a theatrical score,” Kitt explains. “As composers in musical theater, we’re always trying to expand our own vocabulary and come up with different sensibilities and tonalities for a moment. And what Tina and Kyle [Jarrow, the show’s book writer] did so brilliantly was they found exactly where the show wants to sing…that informed the writing, and I was able to take those moments and figure out how I was going to serve them theatrically.”
In their freewheeling chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Landau, Kitt and Slater delve into the development of the SpongeBob stage universe, how Slater created his character, and what it was like to work with a team of pop stars on the score.