When the Tony Award—and Pulitzer Prize—winning composer Tom Kitt was approached to serve as music supervisor for a stage adaptation of SpongeBob SquarePants, he says, “I jumped at the chance”—and not just because Kitt and his children love the Nickelodeon TV series.
“The concept was that all these unbelievable musical talents were going to write for the score,” says Kitt, whose numerous Broadway credits include musical supervision for Green Day’s American Idiot, for which Kitt also provided orchestrations and arrangements. He’s doing the same for SpongeBob, which opened on December 4 at the Palace Theatre, with a smorgasbord of high-profile pop stars lending music and lyrics.
In addition to Sara Bareilles, a Tony nominee for her Waitress score, and Cyndi Lauper, a Tony winner for Kinky Boots, contributors include Broadway newbies such as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, The Flaming Lips, Panic! At the Disco, T.I., Lady Antebellum, Jonathan Coulton, and John Legend (an associate producer of last season’s acclaimed revival of Jitney). The late David Bowie, one of Kitt’s heroes, lent a tune he crafted with Brian Eno. “It seems like every artist we reached out to wanted to be a part of this,” Kitt marvels.
Kitt’s task, then, was “to serve the artists” and the musical’s book, by Kyle Jarrow. “As Kyle has described it, an apocalypse comes to Bikini Bottom,” the character’s home under the sea, “and SpongeBob and Patrick and Sandy”—for the uninitiated, SpongeBob’s starfish BFF and a squirrel pal, respectively—“have to save the day. But there are so many other rich characters. … Adults will get so much out of not only the comedy but the smart, moving story at the center.”
The goal was to highlight disparate creative voices while weaving them into this narrative. “What made the collaboration on American Idiot so successful is that I came to it truly respectful of and influenced by the source material. As someone who composes for musical theater, I can bring a knowledge of that craft, of how to adapt the songs for a stage presentation, from vocal arrangements to dramaturgical things. But first and foremost, you have to retain the identity of the artists; it has to be recognizable as their work.”
Lauper, who wrote a tune called “Hero Is My Middle Name” for SpongeBob and Patrick and Sandy, was able to apply her experience. “When I’m in the studio writing for my own record, I can go wherever the song takes me—which could be anywhere!” she says. “With a musical, it couldn’t be more different. With a musical, the song needs to be specific; my job is to move the larger story forward. It needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and when it reaches the end, the audience needs to have been taken somewhere.”
In the Chicago production of SpongeBob last year, songs included two duets between SpongeBob and Patrick, “BFF” by Plain White T’s and Legend’s “(I Guess) I Miss You”; They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser,” sung by the troublemaking Squidward and the Sea Anemones; and “Daddy Knows Best,” a showcase for SpongeBob’s money-loving boss, Mr. Krabs, and his daughter, Pearl, by Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Coulton’s “Bikini Bottom Day” (not to be confused with Perry and Tyler’s “Bikini Bottom Boogie”) opened the show and was reprised twice, the second time for the finale.
As usual, adjustments are being made for the Broadway production; director Tina Landau notes that arrangements and lyrics have been revised. Some contributing musicians were able to attend the Chicago opening and hear songs recorded for the cast album, “and the response has been fantastic,” says Kitt.
Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s caught two Chicago performances. “I was blown away by how cool and inventive it was,” he says, adding, “I used to perform in plays and musicals in high school, and it’s been a dream of mine to write my own musical. Getting to write a song for SpongeBob was literally a dream come true.”
Says Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie, “I think the thing that most people relate to about SpongeBob is his tenacity, that he never really gives up. He always perseveres through some really terrible times.”
Like many of these artists, Kitt was a SpongeBob fan before becoming a parent, but he has developed a new appreciation for sharing the TV show, and now an original musical, with his kids. “They saw it twice in Chicago. I was nervous about the 5-year-old, who was 4 then, but he was mesmerized and couldn’t stop talking about it. My kids had the same experience a lot of my friends are having — which is that the show is hilarious and tuneful, with a really smart and moving message at the center.”
Pictured above: Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and Brendon Urie.