Seas the day: Creating the world of SpongeBob SquarePants for Broadway

By Timothy Rawles, January 2020 Issue.

SpongeBob 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.”

Director Tina Landau in rehearsal by Jeremy Daniel.

“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 wondering.

“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.

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