How Writer Kyle Jarrow Brought ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ to Life on Broadway (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Perhaps one of the most unusual and surprising shows to open on Broadway in 2017 is a musical adaptation of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. An international sensation, the long-running cartoon about the adventures of a yellow anthropomorphic sea sponge and his underwater friends living in the city of Bikini Bottom has spawned two movies, video games and theme park rides.
Now, SpongeBob’s eclectic world is the source of a delightful new theater production conceived and directed by Tina Landau with a book written by Kyle Jarrow and music supervision, orchestration and arrangements by Tom Kitt. The show, playing at The Palace Theatre, stars Ethan Slater as the titular sponge, Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles, Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks, Danny Skinner as Patrick Star and Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton.
“When I heard that they were developing it, my head exploded,” says Jarrow, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the production. Having worked in theater since 2003, he won an Obie Award with director Alex Timbers for his work on A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant. In addition to the numerous shows he’s written for the stage, he’s also the creator and writer of Valor on The CW.
Now that the show is now playing on Broadway, Jarrow explains how he brought SpongeBob to life on stage.
Accept That It’s a Huge Responsibility
When it came to adapting the cartoon for a major Broadway production, there was a lot of stake -- and even more people invested in its success. First off, there’s the creator, Stephen Hillenburg. Then there’s the network, Nickelodeon, that’s been home to the cartoon from the very first episode. (“[Execs had] fewer notes than you might think,” Jarrow says.) You also have Andy Paley, longtime producer for the likes of Brian Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis, who composed much of SpongeBob’s original music, including the 2004 movie’s closing credits song “The Best Day Ever,” which is also featured in the musical; and Tom Kenny, who voices SpongeBob, giving the character his distinct sound. On top of that, there’s the production’s director, Landau, who previously helmed Superior Donuts and Bells Are Ringing on Broadway. Oh, and all the fans, young and old, of the long-running animated franchise.
“It did feel like a big responsibility because you’re taking this huge brand with so many fans, including myself, and you want to be true to it, but you also want to transform it,” Jarrow says, adding he was lucky enough to meet Hillenburg and some of the animators of the series.
A fan of the cartoon since his college days, when he would watch it with his roommate, Jarrow made it his mission to immerse himself in the world of Bikini Bottom. “I just watched maybe, almost, if not definitely, every episode ever made,” he says. “I just let it seep into my brain -- that was my strategy. I hopefully absorbed the DNA.”
Write an Original Story
With 11 seasons and two movie adaptations, there were a lot of story ideas to choose from, but Jarrow makes clear the plan was always to come up with a new adventure for the stage. Yes, the familiar characters are still there, set in the same universe that’s been established onscreen, but “[we wanted] to really make an original story,” he says.
In the Broadway adaptation, SpongeBob finds himself unexpectedly tasked with saving his underwater city when it’s discovered a nearby volcano is about to erupt. As the city falls into chaos, with the residents turning on each other and pursuing diabolical schemes, SpongeBob (along with Patrick and Sandy) pushes forward with a mission to stop the volcano.
“We honed in on this story about the end of the world coming and this community of Bikini Bottom reacting to that. Do we come together, do we turn on each other? How do we deal with the apocalypse coming?” Jarrow says, explaining it was fun to bring a story with real high stakes and an emotional center to the SpongeBob universe. “It’s a strong spine for a story that could go a lot of different directions,” and importantly, allow them to explore different reactions and stories with the city’s most familiar characters.
While SpongeBob sets off to stop the volcano, Squidward yearns to be appreciated, particularly by performing in a talent show devised to raise money for an escape on Plankton’s ship; Mr. Krabs finds a way to capitalize on the town’s hunger pains; and Patrick deals with some unexpected stardom.
Know Your Limits
When it comes to presenting SpongeBob on Broadway, or any stage for that matter, some things have to be adapted and changed simply for the medium it’s being presented in. (No, there’s no water, but there’s plenty of whimsy and imagination packed into the stage design to make Bikini Bottom feel fully realized.) Working with Landau, the two had to figure out where they had stay true to what people are familiar with and where they could change it.
But no matter how far they wanted to take it, Jarrow knew there were some limitations, in keeping with the SpongeBob universe. “They don’t do pop culture references,” he says, explaining that there would never be a character named “Britney Spearfish.” “That’s just not part of the world.” SpongeBob SquarePants also never tells romantic stories -- at least not with its central sponge. “They just never have. That’s just not what that character is about,” he says matter-of-factly.
Of course, then there’s the core audience to think about. “There are definitely a lot of jokes that are for adults,” he says, adding that more and more were added as the show developed. But while SpongeBob has found an older audience, it’s still a children’s cartoon. There has to be a balance in jokes and references, so that it’s still kid-friendly. “It’s obviously super appropriate for kids and there’s certainly no sexual humor, but there’s tons of subversive humor.”
Outsource the Music to Famous Stars
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of the musical is that it features 18 original songs written by the likes of John Legend, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Lady Antebellum, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T’s, T.I., Sara Bareilles and more. All of them bring a different sound or perspective that somehow works in SpongeBob’s eclectic world -- with some very, very unexpected results, like alt rockers They Might Be Giants penning Squidward’s tap dance showstopper, “I’m Not a Loser.”
In order to get songs that worked with the story at hand, Jarrow says the team would outline the scene for each artist: “Here’s what the scene is leading into. Here’s what the song needs to accomplish. Here’s the character who sings it.” In some cases, he adds, he would provide script pages or lyrical prompts.
“I think they actually responded really well to ‘Here are some really clear parameters of what we need,’” Jarrow continues. “I've got to tell you, when we would get these demos back from these artists, they were all great. They all really fit.” It certainly helped that most were fans of the cartoon and understood the tone of the series.
Let the Audiences Enjoy It
At the end of the day, now that the show is open and audiences are getting to experience a new version of the beloved cartoon, Jarrow hopes people are inspired by its optimism. “He's a character who looks at even the craziest, weirdest, worst situations and comes away smiling about them,” he says, acknowledging the crazy world we find ourselves in today. “I hope that audiences will walk out of that theater above all having had a great time and feeling a sense of hope and optimism. If we give that to audiences, then that's a home run.”