Back in 2015, Nickelodeon announced it would dive into the Broadway scene with SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical with a score penned by multiple pop stars. As songwriters were gradually announced, the list of artists and musical styles grew to what seemed like an insurmountable variety for a book writer to tame into a single script. But book writer Kyle Jarrow says it was “a fairly traditional working process.”
In fact, Jarrow claims his greatest challenge was not wrangling the multitude of voices, but the creation of a full-length musical based on a cartoon that clocks in at 11 minutes per episode. To tackle it, he determined three pillars of the SpongeBob universe—optimism, surreality, and humor—and submitted five potential plots to director Tina Landau, including one last ditch idea he thought they’d never go for.
That “crazy” idea saw Bikini Bottom threatened by the impending world-ending eruption of Mount Humungous. For someone looking for an event to propel a simple sponge to legit musical theatre, “you couldn’t have higher stakes than the end of the world,” Jarrow laughs. And as fans of SpongeBob on Broadway know, Landau and Nickelodeon signed off.
With this foundation, Jarrow built storylines for secondary characters Squidward Tentacles, Sandy Cheeks, and Patrick Star. “People obviously deal with fear and crisis in different ways,” says Jarrow. “Squidward ends up being the idea of, ‘Wow if your time is running out then you’re desperate to fulfill the dreams that you never fulfilled.’ Sandy, her storyline is about how people in times of crisis often turn on outsiders. Patrick’s storyline is about how in times of crisis people often look for answers, turn to religion or, essentially, people to tell them how to get through.” Peppering in other favorite characters like Plankton, Mr. Krabs, and more, Jarrow had a launchpad for his stable of composers.
After penning his 20-page outline, Jarrow knew where he needed songs, what those songs needed to accomplish, and who would sing them. With slots ripe for filling, the team reached out to artists best suited for each musical moment in the show.
Jarrow remembers the “casting” process for SpongeBob and Patrick’s “best friends song.” “[It] feels like it wants to set up the relationship between these two guys. It feels like it wants to be simple and sweet, but not cheesy,” Jarrow recalls. “Plain White T’s feels like a great fit.” Sure enough, the band known for their sweet-strumming “Hey There Delilah” composed the show’s “BFF.”
Musicians who signed on early received a scene synopsis from Jarrow and guidance about the overall message and emotion of the song. Artists who signed on later received pages to the fully formed scenes before and after the number. But the exchange between Jarrow and his nearly two-dozen composers was constant. “Even though the artists weren’t always in the room with us, we tried to keep an organic dialogue going,” he says.
While Jarrow sent off plot points and emotional beats to his composers, he also adjusted the script to fit the music that boomeranged back. “One of the first songs that we got in was They Might Be Giants’ ‘I’m Not a Loser,’ which is [now] Squidward’s 11 o’clock number,” says Jarrow. “They came back with this amazing song all about how he’s not a loser and really exposing his insecurity. But the word ‘loser’ is probably said like 30 times in the song. And they had this idea of this kickline of sea anemones that he imagines.
“Once we got that in a couple of things were clear: 1) The idea of Squidward being called a loser and being dismissed on a personal level … needed to be woven into the piece to set up the song. The idea that the word ‘loser’ is a trigger word for this guy” became part of the show’s early scenes. “And 2) knowing there was going to be this big kickline informed the position of the song in the show.” What theoretically could have been an early-on expositional song to establish Squidward’s character and his dreams, became the Act 2 showstopper.
The positioning of songs remained in flux up until Broadway. Numbers like “No Control” and “BFF” swapped places after the Chicago run to move the apocalypse plot sooner and emphasize the importance of having a best friend when it’s the end of the world rather than an ordinary day.
When songs needed changes internally, writer Jonathan Coulton, who wrote the opener “Bikini Bottom Day,” was on hand for minor lyric rewrites, which the original artist either approved or used Coulton’s notes as a reference for their own fix.
But just like the Bikini Bottom residents facing disaster, the most crucial element to the success of SpongeBob was a united front. So in addition to Landau and Jarrow’s vision, music supervisor and orchestrator Tom Kitt was integral to creating a fluid score from the song submissions and he represented the musical voice at the creative team table. “Above all, the show needs to capture the spirit of SpongeBob. [In] the world of Bikini Bottom there’s all these bizarre, nonsequitur things—SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea,” says Jarrow. So it seems fitting, in hindsight, that Jarrow would puzzle-piece these sounds that wouldn’t ever been heard together in any other universe. “There’s a feeling that anything can happen.”