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Tina Landau Returns to Bikini Bottom to Bring Her SpongeBob Musical to Nickelodeon

Landau restages her Broadway show with its original cast for an upcoming TV broadcast.

Tina Landau was shocked when she heard that Nickelodeon wanted to bring her longtime labor of love, The SpongeBob Musical, to the small screen. Landau conceived and directed the innovative production on Broadway (then titled SpongeBob SquarePants) and earned one of the show's 12 Tony nominations for her work. But after it closed — owing, at least in part, to construction in and around the Palace Theatre — she never imagined the world at large will get to see her brainchild in all its glory.

"Nickelodeon was very determined to have this be a gift that would be part of the holiday season," Landau says of the December 7 broadcast, which reunited all but three members of the original Broadway company for a taping that took place before two live audiences last month in Plymouth, England. But it all happened very quickly.

"When our lead producer came to me with the idea and asked if it was possible, I said, 'No, it's in no way possible,'" recalls Landau, but somehow it all came together thanks to the hard work of a very dedicated company and crew. "God bless the tons of folks who worked round the clock to replicate and adjust and build from scratch the set and the costumes and the props, because it was a lot of work in a very short time."

Tina Landau, director and creator of The SpongeBob Musical.
(© Seth Walters)

Where did you begin when Nickelodeon asked you and your collaborators to rebuild the stage production for TV?
We knew we could not re-create what we did at the Palace Theatre. That would be virtually impossible because it was so specific to that space and it took so long to construct. I knew this had to be some kind of hybrid that would be part of what we did at the Palace and on tour. There were things that were very important to me to have that we do not have on tour, like the passerelle that goes around the front of the stage, but there were also things I discovered from the tour that were beneficial to the show. That included some cuts and putting the Foley artist onstage, which I really love. So I conceived it as a third version, for this specific theater and under the constraints we had.

You have two hours on TV, but the show runs around two-and-a-half hours, including the intermission. How hard was it to kill your darlings in an effort to fit the timeslot?
Kyle Jarrow, the book writer, and I knew immediately that we didn't want to cut any whole plot line or song or character, so we committed to the idea of taking a little of this and a little of that, slowly over time and throughout rehearsal. It was a constant process of "What if that verse came out of this song?" Almost everything has trims in it, but the show still stands and represents itself.

The one thing I didn't want was to give them something that was too long and then someone else would edit it. I always wanted the Broadway show to be 10 minutes shorter, but I didn't know how to do it at the time. When I readied the tour, which was in August, I made six or seven minutes of cuts to strengthen the show. [For television], we've cut 16 minutes of the Broadway show, which was really hard but such a great exercise. Yes, all these things are your favorite moments or jokes, but the show is stronger without some of them.

All but three members of the original Broadway cast have been reassembled for the taping. What was it like to get back in the rehearsal room and dig into the show once again?
It felt like this raucous cocktail party. The first couple days of rehearsal, I felt like I was a scolding schoolteacher because all I was asking them to do was calm down and be quiet. They've all become such close friends and they're all besties outside of the show. They were so happy and hyped to be together, because, as Ethan said to me recently, they see each other all the time, but not all together.

I will say that there was something about how they all feel about the show, the fact that we had to close, and the fact that they had this time away, that have made their performances and understanding of the material actually deepen. There were shadings in performances that I feel only found expression because they had been through this experience of saying goodbye and missing each other.

Will the massive Rube Goldberg machines of David Zinn's Broadway set be there to shoot "boulders" onstage?
Sadly, no, the Rube Goldberg machines in their full form will not be there. Those were the hardest things to build and install for Broadway. They took many, many months of research and engineering, and I don't imagine those could ever be replicated other than in a very long sit-down production somewhere. Even though I'm sad to miss certain elements — the Rube Goldbergs, particularly — I have learned that the show still holds up. It's OK. There are other ways to deliver balls. [laughs]

It's really badass that Nickelodeon is airing this musical about global warming and catastrophe over the holiday season.
What makes me very happy is that you interpret it as such! My favorite way of thinking about it is, I'm very happy Nickelodeon is airing a musical about the power of imagination, and yes, global warming, and also community and otherness and fearmongering, all those things. But the kernel of this musical was an episode of the series called "Idiot Box," where Patrick and SpongeBob get a box with a TV in it, and they throw out the TV so they could play with the box. Isn't it great that we're doing a musical about throwing out the TV and playing with the box, on TV?

Ethan Slater and the cast of The SpongeBob Musical.
(photo provided by Nickelodeon)