Apparently the naysayers were wrong; it is in fact possible to spin shit into gold. This musical, for those who have been living under a rock, is based on an intolerably ubiquitous children’s cartoon that started out as another inane Ren and Stimpy rip-off, and then evolved into a reprehensible attempt to create a kid-friendly version of Seth McFarlane-style “Dead baby comedy”. When they announced they were turning it into a Broadway musical, even I, the eternal optimist about Broadway’s ultimate destiny, got a little worried about the potential implications.
But somehow, the finished product turned out to be genuinely impressive. There were a few puerile jokes here and there in the book, but not nearly as much as one would have expected given the source. The plot they came up with for the musical is actually a really engaging adventure story, and however vile the characters’ behavior often was on the show, as portrayed here they are surprisingly likable.
The visuals are also generally well-thought-out. They were smart enough not to try to dress the actors in theme park costumes that actually looked like their characters, which would have been an absolute disaster. Instead, they wore stylized human attire that bore a vague resemblance to the characters’ original designs. And the sets and staging techniques were the most creative seen on Broadway since Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Groundhog Day, representing a true tour-de-force from the show’s director and designers.
The score was put together by commissioning songwriting contributions from a wild plethora of popular musicians from every field, from Indie novelty musician Jonathan Coulton (the number that frames the show, “Bikini Bottom Day”) to high-class R&B singer John Legend (the touching duet “(I Guess) I Miss You”) to Country-Pop stars Lady Antebellum (the stirring “Chop to the Top”) to legendary Rock band Aerosmith (the scorching “Bikini Bottom Boogie”) to Gospel musician Yolanda Adams (the ridiculous yet ecstatic “Super Sea Star Savior”).
Two Pop musicians who had already made the crossover to Broadway composer status, Cyndi (Kinky Boots) Lauper and Sara (Waitress) Bareilles, also contributed a song each, Lauper’s thrilling anthem “Hero Is My Middle Name” and Bareilles’ riotous comic interlude “Poor Pirates”. Even the late David Bowie, who seemed to have some kind of bizarre attachment to the original cartoon (he had actually done some voice work for it in the past) contributed a song…the surprisingly disturbing “No Control”, an interpolation from his 1995 album Outside.
The highlights of this score are “No Control”, the villain’s showstopping Rap number “When the Going Gets Tough”, and the sad-funny production number “I’m Not a Loser” (contributed by alternative novelty-rock band They Might Be Giants, who seem tailor-made for this kind of project), but the entire score is splendid, and does a great deal to carry the show. Even “The Best Day Ever”, taken from the actual cartoon, works well in the context it’s given here.
Of course, hodge-podge scores of this sort rarely work, no matter how impressive the songs themselves are, due to their almost inevitable lack of a cohesive sound. But in this case, the show had one of modern Broadway’s greatest geniuses as its musical director, and he managed the miraculous feat of arranging all these song written by over a dozen different artists from wildly disparate genres so that they all sounded like they belonged in the same score. Tom Kitt, the aforementioned musical director, is a brilliant composer in his own right, with works like Next to Normal, If/Then, and the musical version of Bring It On under his belt, and he is at least as responsible as anyone else for this show’s musical splendor.
I honestly never thought I’d have to say this, but the Spongebob Squarepants musical is one of the best shows of a generally good season, and I highly recommend seeing it, whether you’ve got children accompanying you or not. That is not a joke. And believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.