Playwrights / Production

How “SpongeBob SquarePants” Writer Kyle Jarrow Found the Story for the Stage



There’s nothing quite like the world of Bikini Bottom that’s currently bubbling to life onstage at Broadway’s Palace Theatre — including the Bikini Bottom that’s been delighting television audiences since 1999.

“There was the process of getting the SpongeBob world and then there was the process of getting our SpongeBob world and it’s not exactly the same,” said book writer Kyle Jarrow. “Figuring out ‘What is our stage version of that tone and that pace and that energy?’, that took a while — that took a couple years.”

For Nickelodeon, the trick was in finding the right SpongeBob guy to partner with director Tina Landau in breathing a breath of fresh sea water into the suboceanic world.

“There were like 50,000 meetings,” recalled Jarrow. “Every meeting they had I was like, ‘Oh, they really want this to be creatively driven and they’re not looking to hire a writer to just kind of be a yes man. They’re looking to hire a writer with a vision.’ Every meeting I had I was like, ‘Oh man now I want it even more.’ Because there’s totally a crappy corporate version and it was so clear from moment one that Nickelodeon was not trying to create that.”

During the very first performance of the musical SpongeBob SquarePants during its out-of-town tryout in Chicago that Jarrow knew he’d finally found his SpongeBob — a character with slightly less absorbency but just as much infectious optimism as his cartoon counterpart.

What did your research entail?
I basically just watched as many episodes as I could — I’ve watched almost every episode. My attitude was I want to get it in my brain so their voices will be in there. For me, immersion is the best way to research anything — let it like marinate and come out of you.

Did you have a specific episode that was important to you?
One episode that I really found inspiring was “Sailor Mouth,” which is an episode where they swear at each other and it sounds like dolphin sounds — there is part of it in the show. One of the things that I loved about it was the way it plays with language and it talks about profanity and obscenity, but it does it in this off-kilter way. There’s another episode too, “Squirrel Jokes.” SpongeBob ends up onstage having to tell jokes. He tells a squirrel joke and people go wild and he starts basically getting fame as a guy who tells squirrel jokes. Sandy [who’s a squirrel] is really hurt, and he doesn’t get the fact that the jokes are hurtful to her. It’s a really profound message about humor that’s about difference, but it’s a hilarious episode and I think it’s done in a way that it doesn’t feel like, oh, this is a hot-button issue. It just feels true.

Those episodes made me realize you can actually do stuff in this world that can be kind of moving and can talk about real things. We live in a really divided country, unfortunately, and it can be tough to talk about some things head-on because people just clam up. But one of the nice things about SpongeBob is because it’s not our world, you can kind of talk about some things that a lot of people would like to talk and think about in a way that feels separate enough that it can feel safe and fun and not like a drag.

You’re known for writing edgy off-Broadway musicals and you’re the showrunner on CW’s military drama Valor. What experiences have you had that you feel have prepared you for this project?
I’ve done a bunch of things that are nontraditional musicals — pop-based music and stuff that plays with the form of musical theater. I think that prepared me because while in a lot of ways what we do has a fairly classical musical-theater structure in this show, in some ways I think there’s a lot about the show that is nonstandard. So feeling loose about what the form can be and excited to push what it can be made it feel like anything was possible.

I think a lot of my stuff is a little darker humor, but I like to use humor to explore some weightier stuff. And this show is about the apocalypse, so that’s definitely my contribution there. We needed to tell a story that had emotional stakes and those are the highest stakes in the world. While the show is not dark, there is a tinge of that sort of dark humor that I’ve tried to explore through my other work. But frankly, the TV show has that kind of dark, edgy humor and we’ve tried to honor that.

How did you manage to write a show about the apocalypse that doesn’t feel dark?
That’s a testament to Tina. She infused so much joy into the production that I think it would never feel weighty, which is also kind of the magic of SpongeBob. He’s the eternal optimist and that’s why SpongeBob can do an episode about essentially making bigoted jokes about a squirrel and it feels fun and light. It’s really a privilege to get to deal with a character that brings that joy.

There’s a joy and a crazy jubilation in the show and in that world. It just feels like a wonderful place to be. And I know that every audience member is walking in there having just read on their phone about, like, some awful thing that’s going on in the world or in our country, and I hope what we can give people is joy. It can be a joy that goes on to your life, because escapism, when you walk out, you’re done. It’s gone. But I think what this show has done for me is it’s given me a joy and an optimism that I can carry out of the theater. And I think if it can do that for the audience then that’s something special.

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