SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway is full of nautical nonsense and a whole lot of heart. Book writer Kyle Jarrow talks us through bringing the sponge from sea to stage.
The first thing you notice when you step into the Palace Theater is the set. And how could you not? It’s a cluster of random, mismatched items that have found their way together to create a place called Bikini Bottom. An abandoned bike here, an umbrella there, the set extends high above the balcony seats creating a Rube Goldberg machine that plays a particularly important part.
Off to the right a band provides the luau flare that long-time fans of the series will recognize from the episodes. All the while on stage are three familiar staples — a rock, an Easter Island head, and a pineapple.
Eighteen years ago SpongeBob SquarePants premiered on Nickelodeon after the Kids Choice Awards. I was 11, sitting at my neighbors’ house, when a yellow sponge appeared tasked with feeding an army of anchovies.
I’ve been watching SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, Sandy, Mr. Krabs, and Plankton ever since. The collection of characters has undergone some slight animation changes over the last 18 years, but no transformation has been quite as drastic as turning the sponge into a man.
That man is Ethan Slater. His unrelenting optimism and mannerisms are spot on, which is odd thing to say since he is embodying a cartoon sponge. His jaw must hurt as much as mine did from the smiling through the entire production.
The rest of the cast embodies their characters using clever costuming and the power of their own voices to capture the essence of the characters. Gavin Lee as Squidward Tentacles dons an extra set of legs that deliver a showstopper tap routine in the second act.
Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, brings the land mammal living in a strange town to life, all while delivering some of the show’s heavier moments.
Brian Ray Norris plays Eugene Krabs against Wesley Taylor’s Sheldon Plankton. Adding giant boxing gloves give Krabs his signature look, while a stuffed Plankton makes a few cameos for scale as Wesley Taylor’s eye-patched villain delivers a highly-entertaining hip hop number written by T.I., Domani & Lil’C. And Stephanie Hsu is close by bringing Plankton’s computer wife, Karen, to life.
Then there is SpongeBob’s best pal Patrick, played by Danny Skinner, whose comedic timing accentuates all things that make the cartoon starfish so beloved. And you are not ready for the powerhouse making her debut as Pearl Krabs, Jai’Len Christine Li Josey.
SpongeBob SquarePants is an eclectic festival of visuals, toe-tapping musical performances, and punchy dialogue that is as funny and sharp-witted as its cartoon origin.
(And luckily, after opening night, the critics agree!)
None of this, of course, would be possible without the creative team behind the musical. Enter book writer, Kyle Jarrow.
Speaking with Hypable the morning of opening night, book writer Kyle Jarrow discussed the over four-year-long process of lifting SpongeBob out of the water and getting Bikini Bottom to the stage. Worried that I would be emitting too much excitement over a musical based on a cartoon, I was put at ease when my enthusiasm was matched with genuine passion from Jarrow.
We cover everything from fitting together all the musical artists, to keeping in important Easter eggs for long time fans. Additionally, Jarrow touches on turning off SpongeBob and bringing another story to life, his new show on the CW, Valor.
‘SpongeBob’ is, in almost every sense, a very non-traditional musical. As a book writer how did you go about marrying so many unique voices and visions into a single story?
It definitely was a challenge, an exciting challenge. The way that we did it was, I had come up with the first draft of the script before we went to the song writers. The first draft of the script had holes for the songs. In the script, it literally said, “song here, about this.”
And then we brainstormed, “Who feels like the most awesome artist to write this particular song?” When we went to the artists we went to them with specifics– this is who the song is for, this is how the song fits into the story, this is what needs to happen in the song, here are some lyrical prompts or ideas that might be useful.
We weren’t totally sure how the process would work, but I think that actually worked pretty well. When we got the first drafts of the songs from the artists, in every case, they were totally great. There were some notes back and forth, but I think giving them the context before they started writing the songs, really helped getting the songs to fit into the story we were trying to tell.
I would then take a look at the script and I would adjust it to fit the songs.
For example, there’s a Squidward song, “I’m Not a Loser.” And we knew sort of what the content of that song wanted to be, but we didn’t know that the word “loser” was going to be so central to it.
When we got the song from They Might Be Giants, it was structured around the idea of “not being a loser.” I reverse engineered that idea into the script — that Squidward had this traumatic experience as a kid where he was called loser and it’s almost like his trigger word.
There were a lot of things like that where I would get a song and reverse engineer to make it make sense. That was one of the ways that we really worked to try and get so many songs by so many different people to fit into a coherent story.
And then we had the really good fortune of working with Tom Kitt, who is our orchestrator and arranger. He honestly did the lion’s share of the work taking these songs from these different artists and then orchestrating them so they sound like they could be in the same score, but also retain some of the individualism of the artist.
He’s honestly a total badass.
He really took these artists’ demos that really sounded so different and found what those common threads were and brought them out in his arrangements and orchestrations.
Listening to the soundtrack straight through, the songs feel like they belong together.
I will say one other thing that was our benefit is that all these artists were really familiar with SpongeBob already. They had watched the TV show. They were fans.
And I think that helps because they understood the world that they were writing for.
There are lot of movie adaptations hitting Broadway where the writers have 120 minutes of source material to work with, that’s it. Whereas SpongeBob has hundreds of HOURS of source material and this universe that is Bikini Bottom.
When you’re writing for these characters you are putting them in a very specific situation – the apocalypse is coming – but that triggers the characters to work through so much more. They are internalizing all of these different fears. Fear itself was a huge part of the show.
I’m so glad that came through.
What was the unpacking process in terms of creating a story that felt very real and true to Bikini Bottom and the characters?
Yes, there’s hundreds of hours of SpongeBob, but it’s almost all 11-minute episodes. The challenge was, we had to figure out a way to tell a story that had that fast-paced surreal energy that those 11-minute episodes have, but we also had to have stakes to sustain a two-hour musical. Generally, 11-minute episodes just don’t have those kind of stakes.*
It was pretty clear early on that adapting one episode was not going to work. We were going to need an original story, which was certainly more exciting to me creatively too. Then the question becomes, “What is the right story to tell?”
This is about four years ago now that I came up with the idea for the story.
I pitched a bunch of different story ideas and this was the craziest one – that the town was dealing with apocalypse and we get to see how all of these different characters face that and deal with that fear. It was by far the craziest idea and I threw it in the mix because I thought that SpongeBob is a super optimistic character. That’s his main trait, he is always optimistic, no matter how bad things are he always sees the bright side.
What is the craziest situation to put someone like that in? Well, the end of the world is absolutely the worst thing that could happen, how funny to put that guy in that situation.[I presented] it to Nickelodeon, and to the director, Tina Landau, along with some less crazy ideas. And unanimously they all went for the craziest one. They all said it was their favorite. Which I kind of couldn’t believe.
As we started developing it, the resonances with the world that we are living in just kept making themselves clear. And certainly, after the election last fall, those resonances just got clearer.
There are a lot of people who feel like we are in a really dark time, it kind of feels a little apocalyptic. We’re in a really divided time. And regardless of what people’s political beliefs are, Trump ran his campaign on fear. Fear is something that is in the American psyche right now.
We’re telling a story about how people deal with fear. Does it bring us together? Does it push us a part? In a sad way, kind of, the show started taking on a little more relevance.
First and foremost, the show needs to be fun, it needs to be filled with joy. It needs to be awesome entertainment and I think we did that. My hope is that we can deliver all that as well as some of these more serious ideas in that really fun package. And maybe we can make people think a little bit about fear and the way fear can make people change.
I didn’t set out, and I don’t think any of us set out, to make something that feels resonant and topical in that way. We set out to something that is fun and joyful and awesome with really high stakes. And then with what happened in the world and as the piece developed it just sort of ended up having this amazing relevance.
*Editor’s Note: For an episode that does, may I recommend checking out the classic season 2 episode, “Dying for Pie.”
And while those messages shine through in a completely original way, there are great nods to the classic episodes of SpongeBob, including a great “My leg!” moment.
The number one challenge for me on this was – I’m a fan I need to make something that I would want to see and that other fans are going to want to see. Something that is true to the universe and to the characters. If I don’t do that, it’s a fail.
All those Easter eggs and references to classic episodes, that’s stuff is really important. What a privilege to get to adapt something you love. God, how cool is that? I feel like that was a real responsibility and that it would work for fans.
Looking over your past theater and film projects, it’s a very eclectic bunch. So much so that ‘SpongeBob’ appears to be a perfect fit. But then you take another glance and realize, “Oh, yeah he also has a military drama, ‘Valor,’ on the CW. Why not?”
They honestly could not be more different. And it’s totally a coincidence that they are happening at the same time. For me, I like to write about things that are exciting to me.
My brother was in the military for a long time and I’ve always wanted to write about that experience.
Valor in particular focuses on a female Special Ops pilot. In real life, Special Ops has just started allowing female pilots. That felt like a really exciting and important story to get to tell.
The tone is obviously really different from SpongeBob, but I feel like the story you are telling, tells you the tone. SpongeBob it’s clear what that tone needed to be. And doing a military drama, it felt pretty clear to me what that tone needed to be.
Even though they are very different, I kind of approach everything the same way. “Does this excite me? Here’s a story I want to tell, what is the right tone or esthetic to match that story?”
It’s a nice break, too. I think if they were similar it might actually be a little crazier. Valor feels like a break from SpongeBob and SpongeBob feels like a break from Valor. I’m grateful that they are so different.
I wanted to note one thing about ‘Valor’, I particularly enjoyed the pacing of the series. This fall there are other military dramas out (like CBS’ ‘S.E.A.L.’), but ‘Valor’ carves out a place for itself and is set apart.
What you said about the pacing is so flattering because that was a big thing for myself and my co-showrunner on the show Anna Fricke (Being Human, Everwood). Pacing was something we talked a lot about – what pacing we liked on TV and the pacing that we wish we saw more of on TV.
I think particularly with network TV, especially live with commercials, if the pacing doesn’t feel right people don’t come back after the commercial break. Keeping that rhythm of story is even more important than a cliffhanger.
It’s interesting too because on the CW because they have a huge streaming following.
And that’s a challenge I think more and more network television is going to have to face. How do you make something where the act breaks are awesome when you are watching it live, but also when you are going to stream it? When instead of a [long] act break it’s just a second of black on your computer screen?
Valor airs Mondays at 9:00 p.m. ET on CW. SpongeBob SquarePants the Broadway Musical is playing now at the Palace Theater. You can get tickets here!