Features EssaysNYCNYC FeaturesOpinion Published 8 May 2018

What’s Wrong with Brand Name Art

Or Why You Should See SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical. Seriously. I Mean It. I’ll Wait. Go Buy Your Ticket Now.

Nicole Serratore

When I caught sight of a tweet from Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks about The Band’s Visit I was struck by his phrase “a Broadway musical that you can actually talk about.” Looking deeper into the article he was setting up a “little show that could” scenario between The Band’s Visit, an Off-Broadway transfer from the Atlantic Theater, against the other Tony-nominated new Broadway musicals—Frozen, Mean Girls, and SpongeBob—which he calls “brand-name shows” with “with fan bases of their own.”

The Band’s Visit (Photo:Matthew Murphy)

It’s not an unfair comparison necessarily. The Band’s Visit is based on a pre-existing movie which may be well known in Israel but is less familiar to Americans than other musicals derived from movies such as Groundhog’s Day, Mean Girls, and Legally Blonde. There’s no question The Band’s Visit has done remarkable business since it opened on Broadway in the fall and found an audience despite its lower profile. But Marks says “devotees of artful musical theater” are hoping The Band’s Visit wins a Tony.

This is where I wish to challenge his assertions. His tweet made the suggestion that the other nominees somehow lacked the depth or originality to drive thoughtful discussion and then he calls The Band’s Visit “artful” in contrast to these branded works?

This all gave me pause particularly when two of the branded shows at issue are female-centric narratives—one about teen girls and friendship and the other about the importance of sisterhood and family—and the remaining musical is a non-binary, queer escapade under the sea. There are always going to be differences of opinion about what we all want from musical theater. But inherent to musicals are their premise of singing and dancing and entertainment. They are, even the “serious” ones, an escape from an unsung reality. Some of those escapes may be more harrowing than others (What’s in those meat pies, Mrs. Lovett?!) and some may find their path more light-hearted. But I believe even though a show has a recognizable title or may be derived from a known “brand” it can still be art that benefits audiences and pushes Broadway forward.

I mean no one grumbles (ok some people grumble, including me) when we revive musicals with well-known titles or that already have built-in audiences for their reception. Does My Fair Lady become less artful because people may be familiar with the movie having never seen a production of the musical itself? Is My Fair Lady not the same kind of derivative art as Mean Girls since both shows involved composers and lyricists creating a musical from a pre-existing story? Are Rodgers and Hammerstein not, at this point, a “brand” people may seek out because they already know the storylines of R&H musicals or because they know what they are getting when they buy a ticket? Are the SpongeBob or Mean Girls merchandise stands the issue? Because you know even Tom Stoppard plays have merch (It’s terrible merch and frankly I wish all Broadway merch was better.)

To dismiss commercial works on Broadway on “brand name” grounds like these is not entirely fair. I didn’t know anything about the SpongeBob TV show. The effusive notices that came out of the pre-Broadway run in Chicago surprised me and I was skeptical. But once I saw it, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical became one of my favorite shows of 2017. I’ve found myself embroiled in deep conversations with others about it. I have unexpectedly become an evangelist for the show as both a work of artful musical theater and an indication that Broadway is making space for positive, queer-friendly family entertainment.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I was thrilled to discover the precious friendship between SpongeBob and his starfish best friend Patrick. To my eyes, here were young men (…well, male-identifying creatures who live under the sea) engaged in a non-sexual, non-violent, loving friendship. This was radical to my eyes.  Certainly there can be a queer reading of their dynamic. But there is an equally positive example of kind, sweet male friendship between boys. We do not make a lot of space in our culture for gentle or soft images of masculinity. Toxic masculinity seems to finally be something we are talking about more openly and how damaging it is to both men and women. After the past week or so where the world has turned its eyes to the violent misogyny of the “incel” world, I keep thinking about how much some men need to experience less violent and less aggressive representations of masculinity. Their self-worth should not be tied up in one way of thinking about what masculinity is or how it manifests. SpongeBob provides that (I would also argue there can be a similar reading to the central male friendship in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). If this is a trend on Broadway, I wholeheartedly welcome it. We need it and it might change people lives.

Since SpongeBob lives in a pineapple under the sea, the sea creature universe is less of a binary gender space than most. But this production embraces that. In costuming, there are male and female-identified performers who wear “dresses” and there are male and female-identified dancers who wear identical kick-line costumes that might be more common on the Rockettes. This subtle queering of the performance space again works dramaturgically but in a less inclusive production they may not have cast the show this way or made those design choices. That this is also aimed at families means that all families may be able to see reflections of themselves here. Despite there being a lot of LGBT stories in theater (well heavy on the G, slowly increasing on the L and T), we do not often see this kind of casual queerness: queer people (or sea creatures) just living their lives without the story being centered on their identity.

Beyond the gender politics of what the show is doing, I found the underlying work itself a hopeful, positive political narrative. The musical addresses immigration, the environment, scarcity, panic, community pressure, and mob mentality. The town faces an environmental disaster and the political and community responses to it reflect a poisonous selfishness. The individuals act to protect themselves at the expense of their neighbors. SpongeBob and his friends must selflessly act for the good of the whole. These three friends must work together and each brings their unique talents to the task—they could not succeed without each other.  This life-affirming embrace of friendship, mutual respect, and appreciation of our differences is quite moving. And in this moment of political chaos, internet dogpiling, and talk of the need for activism the musical is taking each of these things in turn and showing the audience that we have the tools to help each other if we choose to. Weaving this political message into an upbeat, funny, and joyful show is a feat unto itself.

Of course, SpongeBob’s message is a simple one (I’d argue the premise of The Band’s Visit is as basic) but how the show communicates this message is the art and here there are ample creative choices to dig into and discuss. Director Tina Landau builds the show up in smart, strategic, colorful, and inventive ways playing on its cartoon background but finding a stage language that is fitting. Though it is clearly expensive and well-budgeted it never feels like she’s needlessly throwing money at problems. Instead, each song and scenario strengthens the characters and their universe.  In some large-scale musicals, you get the sense some directors substitute their lack of ideas with loudness or frivolity or frenetic action which may not actually be moving the story forward. My take on Kinky Boots was whenever there was a low energy dip the instruction was to send out more drag queens whether that made any sense or not. SpongeBob could have turned into the shouty, punch-you-in-your-face, unsubtle, sparkly, seizure-inducing nightmare of Aladdin. It’s not.

I come back to the musical number “(Just a) Simple Sponge” over and over again for this. Landau uses black light and LITERAL sponges in the hands of the ensemble to animate this stage sequence. She utilizes simple stage tricks to accomplish something visually different. The soaring song gets punctuated with the constantly rearranging sponges and it illustrates the song in a hand-drawn cartoon-like way.  We can see how they are doing it but that also adds to the fun of it. It’s magic and craft all in one. The amalgamation of familiar items re-purposed and tactile fabrics in the design choices manage to be daring in expression while still lo-fi in execution.

In lesser hands, the bright color palette, zippy choreography, bold sound effects, and mixed-genre score might come across as an overbearing or discordant mishmash. But she makes this visual and aural cacophony symphonic and cohesive. It’s so seamless and well-done (though not showy) I worry people may not be considering how strategic and artful it is.

Should we shun artful musicals with simple messages or joyous expressions of them like this? Someone tell Bernadette Peters to stop raising the roof in Hello, Dolly! then. I’m not telling her.

I’m not going to argue the merits of one show Tony nominee this year against the other. I know people connected with The Band’s Visit, Frozen and Mean Girls too. There are some beautiful performances, gorgeous directorial moments, creative solutions to complex musical theater problems, and magic that happens in these shows. But my point remains that whether you know the “brand” or not, art can still be made of out pre-existing properties, these works can offer deeper resonance for people who lack stage representation, they can move the needle forward on Broadway inclusivity, and they can even entertain you.

Nicole Serratore

Nicole Serratore writes about theater for Variety, The Stage, American Theatre magazine, and TDF Stages. She previously wrote for the Village Voice and Flavorpill. She was a co-host and co-producer of the Maxamoo theater podcast. She is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.