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SpongeBob in the Sea with Boulders

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • Inside Theater
  • January 2018
• Created: January 11, 2018

Squidward Q. Tentacles (Gavin Lee) gets the big song and dance number he’s been itching to perform. Photos by Joan Marcus

There have been few Broadway shows as exuberantly trippy as SpongeBob SquarePants, a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly show inspired by the television series. This live version — which features original songs by the likes of Panic! At The Disco, Cyndi Lauper, and the Flaming Lips, among many others — crams as much colorful scenery and costumes and energetic song and dance numbers as it can into its two and a half hour stage time.

SpongeBob SquarePants (Ethan Slater) and Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) pay an ode to their love of beef. Photo by Joan Marcus

What is most surprising is the way in which wacky cartoon characters have been transformed into a highly animated, three-dimensional human cast that audiences easily recognize, identify with, and cheer for. The story is set in the undersea village of Bikini Bottom, which is endangered by the impending eruption of Mt. Humongous. It’s a potential tragedy that the villainous Plankton hopes to use to his advantage in his fast food rivalry with SpongeBob’s boss, Mr. Krabs of the burger joint the Krusty Krab.

David Zinn

Scenic designer David Zinn had a big challenge in designing the numerous set pieces and myriad costumes and blending their unique look and eye-popping colors into a cohesive production that is bright and loud without overwhelming your senses. Actually it does, but in a good way. The process for reaching this picturesque pinnacle began over five years ago at the first workshop of the show, which was focused around the musical’s physical world and building “a rough vocabulary of things that we felt were SpongeBob-y,” he says.

SpongeBob SquarePants

Early on, director Tina Landau mapped out some basic projections, the first being “a little bit of water on the ceiling and a scuba diver swimming by,” recalls Zinn. By the second presentation, which was held in a windowless rehearsal hall, “we had been playing with things that unfold and pop-up books, and we just did a sample projection of some complicated and wonderful pattern on a plain pop-up. From the beginning, coded into it was this idea that I was going to create an environment using the transformation of projection and color. That was going to be a part of how this thing came to life.”

‡‡         Three Years of Development

For three years, Zinn has worked steadily on designing sets for the show. The two other designers who played an integral part in creating the visual vocabulary of the show are lighting designer Kevin Adams and projection designer Peter Nigrini, both Broadway veterans. They fully came on board after the third presentation, which featured “a more developed pass at the script and pass at the design” that took place at CSC, a small theater in New York’s East Village. Zinn says that what they ended up with then was “somewhere between a rehearsal room presentation and what we ended up with to get a flavor of the physical world that we were imagining.”

SpongeBob SquarePants

The only off-Broadway try-out took place during the summer of 2016 at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago. It is clear from the show that the scenic, video, and production departments had to sync closely together because SpongeBob is a very tightly choreographed musical. Even then, they only had two weeks of tech rehearsal in Chicago, then later moved to New York for a 2017 opening with still only two weeks of tech there. “Having the information from Chicago certainly helped us make this go faster, but it was fast,” acknowledges Zinn. “It was scary.”

SpongeBob SquarePants

Zinn feels that the most challenging aspect of designing for SpongeBob SquarePants was not any one musical number but what happens in the house overall. “It impacts so many departments in ways that people aren’t usually asked to impact,” he explains. “The neon flowers and fish lures that hang from the ceiling, the bubble arch [with] balls and bubbles over the stage, and the Rube Goldberg machines that flank the boxes on either side of the stage — it’s a big build and a big expense in a place that you normally just worry about from the plaster line [to] upstage. Also, I’m not an engineer, which it turns out is useful if you’re making a Rube Goldberg machine. Those are the two things I felt like I started the most at zero, so that’s where we had to sink a lot of energy and research into. We found two guys who are Rube Goldberg engineers, and they were wonderful collaborators.”

In case you’re wondering, a Rube Goldberg machine is a zany contraption that takes simple tasks and overly complicates them. They are named after the American cartoonist who created them, and they are not necessary, just highly amusing. Zinn’s example: “To put a piece of toast in the toaster, there’s a bird that pecks a seed that unties a string that flips a thing and does this and that to get the bread into the toaster.”

The two giant, three-level Rube Goldberg machines standing next to the box seats in the SpongeBob audience are “and immensely complicated way to get the balls onstage.” The machines resemble something out of the board game Mouse Trap, and down through each one comes an inflated ball or balls, which double for boulders coming from Mt. Humongous as it threatens to erupt. The first Rube tower at stage right shoots off smaller dodge balls and the lone “boulder” at stage left is the size of a large exercise ball.

SpongeBob SquarePants

Given the large amount of scenery required for this musical — there are set pieces for everything from the Krusty Krab to SpongeBob’s home to Plankton’s lair to inside the volcano itself — it was tricky squeezing it all into the limited wing space of the Palace Theatre. The crew had much more storage space in Chicago, “but the Palace wing space is very, very small, so a lot of stuff goes directly in the air once it’s been on stage,” reports Zinn. “The mountain of boxes is directly against the back wall of the theater, so we are pushed to the walls. In Act I, all those orange box carts are up in the air, the bigger costumes go up in the air, there’s a ton of stuff up there.”

‡‡         Making the Colors Pop

The color-saturated look of the SpongeBob musical feels like the psychedelic ‘60s children’s television shows of Sid and Marty Krofft taken to, well, a higher plane. Given that Zinn designed both the sets and the costumes for the show, one wonders if there was a temptation to have the costumes melt into the scenery and blend them together. “There are things that step into the background a little bit and things that pop out from them,” he remarks. “It’s nice knowing what the environment is and when to let the costumes push forward and when to step back and let a scenic unit take the stage.” (The best bit of costuming are the two fake legs and feet attached to Squidward’s costume. They move together to make him a six-limbed, squid-like human, and it was a concept that emerged from the very first presentation and has been fine-tuned since then.)

Many people were wondering how this beloved show was going to translate to the stage. According to Zinn, cable television network Nickelodeon, which owns the SpongeBob SquarePants property, wanted to focus on something human centered, not actors in foam suits, and they were very encouraging to the designers to find “our own crazy vocabulary” with which to tell this musical tale. The main debate surrounding the show’s three leads — SpongeBob SquarePants (a sponge), Sandy Cheeks (a squirrel), and Patrick Star (a starfish) — was how far to veer away from their animated personas and still have kids recognize their beloved characters.

“They were always very human, but I think after Chicago it still felt like we were costuming them as opposed to them being people wearing clothes,” observes Zinn. “It was clear that we could get realer and realer with them, more and more human, and less costume-y. And save the fun of that for the world that surrounds them. The pleasure of the emotional journey of those three is enhanced when they’re humanized, so I think the journey from Chicago to New York was finding an even more human vocabulary for them.”

The lighting also evolved between the two theaters. When one looks at the Broadway show, the many pastel colors used in the sets are enhanced with more color from the lighting grid; such as blue on blue, fuchsia on fuchsia, and green on green. “Among other things, Kevin is a real color master,” declares Zinn. “There are a lot of different colors happening, and he can make all of them glow at the same time which is great. The Rubes in Chicago were blue, and we felt like they got lost in all of the other stuff in the house. If they were orange, they would have more in common with the mountain and it would be easier to have Kevin pick them out. Also, who doesn’t want to have a lot of colorful things on stage?”

Zinn says that Peter Nigrini worked in tandem with Adams “in terms of toning things or giving a color ground or a textured ground that wouldn’t naturally be there,” but then he went beyond that with his nuanced approach. “Every time now that Plankton is on stage, the whole skeleton gets sonar mapped in green that looks like Tron, which I love,” remarks Zinn. “You can see through the scenery into its glowing structure. It’s really beautiful and subtle. The work that we do is not so much like what I think of as slide projector work — now we’re in this location, and now we’re in this location. Peter keeps finding ways to bring movement and texture to my static things. With the surfboards on the band shell, he makes them feel like they’re lighting up and the waves color through them. They’re physically very static, and while I put some lights in the unit, Peter turns on this third dimension of movement and beauty. He does that everywhere. There isn’t a piece of scenery that he can’t animate in some way, which is amazing.”

The SpongeBob scenic designer feels that the Broadway incarnation of the show is a great summation of the work that he, Adams, and Nigrini have put together into the production so far. Zinn says it was a pleasure to work with director Tina Landau, whom he has known about since he arrived in New York three decades ago and whom he has always admired. He also quips that he learned a lot about Rube Goldberg machines and how much scenery one can put onstage in the Palace. Further, working on the show “definitely reaffirms something I’ve always believed, which is that a rain curtain is the cheapest and most wonderful way to transform an environment ever created, and this is that on a huge scale.”

Over the years, Zinn has made his name working on a variety of plays and musicals, many of them about deeper social issues, including Fun Home, A Doll’s House Part 2, and Seminar. But he has also shown his “blockbuster” side through shows like Rocky and Xanadu. He knows how to adapt to the needs of each production.

“You go to The Humans for a different reason than you go to SpongeBob,” notes Zinn, comparing his Tony Award-winning 2016 drama with his latest musical. “I always want the work to be generous, and for SpongeBob, that means something different than the kind of generosity that’s in something like The Humans, which is all about restraint — careful and concise choices. It’s serving a different task, so the generosity manifests differently. It would be mean and strange to serve SpongeBob with anything other than the kind of generosity that we brought to it — just in terms of the sheer amount of ideas, fun, and color. That’s why that show exists.”

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