A friend of mine recently noted — very rightly — that pretty much everything is becoming a musical now. Though for every Beetlejuice and Mean Girls popping up in recent months, there’s a Little Shop of Horrors or Sunset Boulevard that tried and succeeded at the exact same exercises. The practice isn’t new, but it seems to be growing.
So despite 2016’s SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical escaping my notice entirely, its existence didn’t surprise me. It did, however, seem like a production for which I probably wasn’t the target audience. So when I discovered that the show was, as of December 2019, available to watch online, I thought it would make for a good reaction piece. I expected that I would be disturbed, annoyed, or confused.
But I was wrong. I was so wrong. The SpongeBob musical is genuinely good on all levels. I enjoyed it. I had a good time. And coming from someone who’s lukewarm about SpongeBob at best, that’s impressive.
The show was put together by Tina Landau, who received a Tony nomination for her work (among the show’s other award wins and nominations). It’s got massive set pieces, a wide array of visual effects, a huge cast, inventive costumes, stage ninjas, and the true hero of the show: one dude recreating all the sound effects in real time like an absolute king. You’re barely a minute in when you realize they are going to go the extra mile to make this as much like the cartoon as possible.
As it’s a long performance, obviously it needs a bigger story than usual SpongeBob fare. The larger-than-life threat comes in the form of a volcano, whose eruption in a matter of days threatens to wipe out the entirety of Bikini Bottom. SpongeBob, in the midst of a wave of spongy self-doubt, teams up with Patrick and Sandy to stop the eruption. But between Sandy getting hate for being a lung-haver and Patrick starting a sardine cult, things are looking bad. Meanwhile, Plankton uses the social unrest to hypnotize the locals into enjoying his chum burgers, and the locals decide to hold a last-minute charity concert (which Squidward wants to headline).
The B, C, D, and E plots all actually hold up in the face of each other. The mobile set, aided by lighting effects, means scenes can swap out at the drop of a hat. What should be hugely confusing fits together, while still maintaining the cartoon’s crazy pacing. Also, Squidward does a showstopping second-act number about anxiety, further solidifying his status as the mascot of my generation.
One of the show’s wisest decisions was going with costumes inspired by the characters rather than attempting to be them. There are a few background characters with more in-depth looks — and yes, Squidward has extra legs — but the costume design harkens back to the trend of “human version” fanart when it comes to the leads. One of the cleverest design-wise is Plankton, reimagined as a less competent Bond villain with an eyepatch.
This is really not the recap I thought I’d be writing. I expected to rant about uncanny costumes, awkward branding, and lukewarm lyrics that fall short of capturing the feel of the original show. But here we are, with me actually wishing I could have seen it onstage in its heyday. If you have kids in your family and they’re pestering you to watch this, say yes. You’ll have a good time. I promise.