Kyle Jarrow didn’t mean for his Broadway adaptation of Nickelodeon’s renowned cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants to be a political statement
But, as all things show business tend to go, the musical evolved into a commentary about the era we live in.
“Most of it was written before Trump was elected,” says Jarrow over the phone.
“But I think the show has taken on a new resonance. I hope that [it] can be appealing to people of any political stripe because I think we can all probably agree that our country is definitely at a bit of a crisis point and we have to figure out a way to come together.”
How, exactly, can a cartoon about a naïve, square, yellow sponge living in a pineapple, under the sea, guide a country currently in a self-described (and prescribed) predicament towards serenity?
“It’s about the humanity,” says the writer. “It’s about being in a crisis and finding a way to come together based on our similarities, as opposed to getting all hung up on our differences. The way we’re going to get through it is together.”
Jarrow embodies the role of social commentator while discussing other aspects of his work as well. Offering tidbits of wisdom to up-and-coming artists (“Lean into your strengths,” “Figure out a way to see your work on its feet immediately,” “Don’t write what you think people want”) and interesting takes on the effects of the internet on the entertainment industry throughout our conversation, he dissects the world around him as poignantly and as clearly as only artists that are completely in-tune with their artistry can.
Here is what the writer had to say about his Broadway production and television show, his passion for music and more:
How did the SpongeBob Musical come about?
I’ve been involved for about five years but they were developing it even before that. Nickelodeon […] wanted to make sure that the stage version of it did something that the TV and film versions didn’t do.
The challenge for me and director Tina Landau was to basically prove that there was a reason for it to be on Broadway. What should the characters look like? How does the humour translate? A lot of the humour in SpongeBob is visual humour that’s based on animation. [When live], it’s not animated—so what kinds of different humour do you have to do?
How did you solve these various technical issues?
We worked with all these great bands who wrote original songs for us. The show has original songs from Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, T.I., Yolanda Adams, Flaming Lips, Plain White Ts, David Bowie, Lady Antebellum, Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants. They brought their talents to the table and, hopefully, we’ve created a funny and touching show that has great tunes, really inventive theatricality and could appeal to a range of ages. It’s definitely a family appropriate show.
Speaking of the audience: The cartoon appeals to kids and adults alike. When did you become a fan?
I came to be a fan as an adult, in college.
In terms of a storyline, each cartoon episode offers a standalone story. How did you get around that when writing the musical?
Part of my job was working with Landau to create an original story that is set in the world of SpongeBob and uses the characters that everyone knows and loves.
What I can tell you is that there’s a volcano called Mount Humongous that is right outside the borders of Bikini Bottom. The volcano is about to erupt. They realise the entire town is going to be destroyed and it’s about how all these characters deal with that fear. Some of them turn against each other, some of them bond together and, ultimately, SpongeBob is really the only one who says: “We can’t flee, we can’t abandon our town, we have to try to save it.”
The story is about a community in crisis and the positive and negative ways that the different characters deal with that.
In the age of the Internet and constant streaming capabilities, how will you get people to the theatre?
How do you compete with that huge [Netflix] library? It used to be that you were only competing with the things that were on five networks, now you’re competing with everything ever made. I actually think that live theatre has an advantage because there’s a liveness. There is an energy to live theatre and live music that is just infectious and powerful. There’s a shared experience with an audience that I think can be really special.
One of the things that we’ve tried to do with the SpongeBob musical is make it immersive, in the sense that when you walk into that theatre as an audience member, it feels like you are walking into the world of Bikini Bottom. It feels like it is all around you and there are moments when the story explodes out of the stage into the audience and welcomes the audience in.
I think there is something unique about that, that is different from just curling up on your couch and watching Netflix.
How has the internet in general and Netflix specifically changed the entertainment industry?
I think it has opened up a lot of storytelling possibilities. My TV show, Valor, for example, is very serialised. It’s dying to be watched in sequence. It’s like a novel and I think that streaming has allowed that kind of storytelling to happen. You can do more complicated storytelling and you can also develop characters more because you can see how people change over time. That’s a little easier to do when you know that people are going to watch your story in the order in which you intend.
Of all the things that have really led to that golden age of television, this is really the biggest factor: People can do long-form storytelling in a way that even ten years ago I think was hard to do.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers that are dealing with this version of the industry?
In a lot of ways, it’s a great time to be young and getting into this because there are so many outlets that are creating original content, particularly in television. But I think the challenge is that the market place is really saturated. There is so much out there. How do you stand out, particularly as somebody who is young?
My advice would be that, generally, what people offer that is most unique is the story that they feel they need to tell. Don’t write what you think people want. Write the story that you feel driven to tell, even if it’s super weird, even if you think no one would want to see it. Go with the story you have to tell.
Free your mind and go for that, that’s how you’re going to stand out.
You’re also in a rock band called Sky-Pony, with your wife as the lead singer. Tell us about that.
I write the songs and there are six other members. What I love about the band and music is that you can do it so fast. I can write a song, then we can play it live the next time we have a show.
TV shows take a long time to make, Broadway shows take forever to make most of the time. I know that sometimes it can get frustrating as an artist, because you’re writing all this stuff but you want to see it come to fruition. What I would encourage young people to do is figure out a way to see your work on its feet immediately. Don’t just write. Give yourself the opportunity to hear it or see it out loud. Because sitting in a room writing can get lonely.
You’ve tackled theatre, music, film and television. What medium are you most comfortable in?
I started out doing theatre and playing live music, doing plays and being in a rock band so there’s a part of my heart that will always be there but, the truth is, they’re all really different and I love them all in different ways. Each of the medias have their own awesome things and their own challenges.
Could you ever see yourself working in front of the camera?
I’m really not very good at acting. I feel like it’s important to know where your strengths are. Not that you shouldn’t try other things, but lean into your strengths.
Tickets for the SpongeBob SquarePants musical on Broadway are available here.
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