The director and playwright Tina Landau has helmed works by leading names in drama and musical theater, from Shakespeare to her fellow Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Tracy Letts, and from Comden and Green to Adam Guettel. But for her latest Broadway outing, Landau sought inspiration in a character originally developed for children’s television — an animated sea sponge, to be precise.
That would be the unsinkable title character of the long-popular Nickelodeon series SpongeBob SquarePants and its movie adaptations. Now SpongeBob SquarePants has arrived onstage; subtitled The Broadway Musical, it opened on December 4 at the Palace Theatre.
Landau admits she was skeptical when her agent first approached her about nine years ago with news that Nickelodeon was “exploring the possibility” of such a project. “All I could see was a big costumed mascot and characters in a theme park, which is among the things I’m least interested in doing,” she says. But she learned that the network was open to different ideas and that the show’s creator, animator (and former marine biology teacher) Stephen Hillenburg, “was only interested in the material being adapted for the stage if it had an ‘indie spirit,’ because that’s what he came out of.”
So Landau “spent time entering the world of Bikini Bottom,” the city under the sea where SpongeBob lives. “I knew the show vaguely and had seen some episodes, but I wasn’t a fan in the true sense,” she says. But like many other grown-ups, President Barack Obama among them, Landau was drawn in by the series’s wry, mischievous wit. “The writers said to me at one point later, ‘We worship at the altar of Dada,’” she recalls.
One of Landau’s first pitches for the musical concerned the score. “I wanted it to be exceedingly contemporary and to follow the lead of the show, which is a mash-up of styles and genres; it’s all about juxtaposition.” A list of high-profile artists — including Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, T.I., Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and David Bowie — signed on. “I can’t tell you the number of times I pinched myself,” Landau says.
The challenge then facing Landau and librettist Kyle Jarrow was in extending the narrative. Episodes of SpongeBob feature two stories, each “about 11 minutes,” Landau notes. “We had to find a story that could sustain our interest for over two hours, and that meant a story with high stakes, where something was going on that would matter. And we thought, What could matter more than the end of the world — the apocalypse? What happens if you have just 24 hours left? What comes out in people, in a community?”
The decision was made “to put the characters in human form, and that necessitated going deeper into who they were.” During a tryout in Chicago last year, fans of all ages seemed pleased with the results. “We didn’t write the show for children; we wrote it for ourselves,” says Landau. “Though children will enjoy it.” She adds, “We did not get a single comment from a kid saying that SpongeBob didn’t look like SpongeBob.”
While preparing for that earlier run, Landau remembers, “I’d said that the world needs a SpongeBob musical, and that was both appreciated and derided on social media. But I stand by that statement more than ever today.”
Pictured above: Danny Skinner, Ethan Slater, and Lilli Cooper. Photo by Joan Marcus.