When director Tina Landau got the call from her agent asking if she’d be interested in pitching herself to Nickelodeon for a SpongeBob SquarePants musical—now in previews at Broadway’s Palace Theatre and officially opening December 4—she didn’t know much about the animated character who lives in a pineapple under the sea. “I guess I would say I liked it,” she says now of the show. “I didn’t watch it often. When I did, I could only watch one episode. Eleven minutes was all I could bear.”
Landau’s initial reaction to adapting the series? “I’m not interested in a theme park show.”
But what ultimately piqued her interest was the opportunity to divert from the familiar SpongeBob aesthetic and channel the “indie spirit” creator Stephen Hillenburg originally embraced. “I thought if I could pitch exactly the kind of show that I want to do and would be interested in seeing, why not give it a whirl?”
She describes the process as extracting the “SpongeBob DNA.” The identifying feature: the celebration of the surreal. Years later, when meeting with the series’ writers, she’d learn she wasn’t far off. They approached the show with a similar theatrical sensibility, telling her, “We worship at the altar of Dada.”
As Landau signed on, there was still no script. With a focus on physicalizing her vision, she worked with an array of collaborators, including clowns and circus performers, to create a set of laws for the SpongeBob universe.
Contemplating her childhood, Landau recalls her early ambitions: director (check) or, fittingly, oceanographer. She now realizes the unifying factor of the two: “You can be in a world other than our own everyday, walking, breathing one. Laws are different; sound is different.” Creating a SpongeBob musical became an absurdist composite of both.
Landau’s Bikini Bottom (where SpongeBob resides) exudes a DIY mentality: “We made a tunnel out of hula hoops. There’s a mountain made out of cardboard boxes. It’s a whole world created out of scrap metal and a chum bucket.”
Landau then found actors to inhabit her world (led by Ethan Slater, whom she asserts has “that eau de SpongeBob”), a story to share (an apocalyptic Everyman tale), and a musical language to tell it. (Like Bikini Bottom, the score is a hodgepodge of elements from various sources; among those who contributed are Sara Bareilles, John Legend, and David Bowie.)
The end result is a show that creates new life with the SpongeBob DNA. As a young audience member from a workshop recalled, the series shows how SpongeBob looks while the musical shows what SpongeBob feels.
And Landau believes the world needs a SpongeBob musical. “In a world that can feel like it’s crashing into some horrendous ending, SpongeBob has a different spin. He says, ‘No. Let’s not give up. Let’s find a way to make this better.’”