Why this Broadway bound musical worries me.

I try to remain super positive about our lovely little industry, even when things make me go “Ummmm?”

I had one of those, “Ok, Ken, stay positive.  Stay positive.  No cracks.  Stay positive,” moments a few weeks ago when a new musical announced that it was on its way to Broadway.

That musical?

SpongeBob SquarePants.

Hey!  I said stay positive!

In an obvious “We’re getting our butts kicked by Disney” move, Nickelodeon and its ginormous parent company, Viacom, are trying to get into the game.

So what concerns me?

Well, allow me to let the comments on the Entertainment Weekly article about the announcement speak  for me:

I feel like they’ll put anything on Broadway these days. And that’s not always such a good thing . . .

 

This is just so dumb and ridiculous. Can’t they give this tired franchise a 10 year break or something? And can Broadway do something original?

Look, I’ll admit, I can be as commercial as they come, and if there were unlimited Broadway theaters, I’d say come one, come all, to shows based on animated kids television shows or shows based on office supplies or whatever.  But in an era when Broadway theaters are in such high demand, I wonder if SpongeBob is the best use of our space?  (And I’m sure that strange little character will get a theater, because, well, Viacom has billions of dollars and billions of political favors to call in.)

Broadway has gotten more and more Vegas-y over the years, and more and more theme park-y.  And while grosses are up, I’m concerned that if we usher in shows like SpongeBob our reputation may suffer (as evidenced by the comments above – and by how I’m sure you all feel about this idea).  Years ago, a SpongeBob musical would just tour around the country (and world) making gobs of money (which SpongeBob has done), but it seems the success of Disney on Broadway has made the executives at Viacom want to march into NYC and make a bigger mark.

But SpongeBob isn’t Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King or even The Little Mermaid.  For these musicals and their movies, the source stories were epic, classic, hero journey structures that appealed to all generations, and will for decades.  I went to The Lion King on a date.  You think SpongeBob will be a date show?  Instead of coming from an organic place of “let’s make a show that people will love” it seems to be coming from a place of “let’s make a show that will make us money.”  (And that usually never ends well.)

All this means that the Producers of SB have their work cut out for them for sure.  I do give them a ton of credit for hiring the supremely talented Tina Landau to captain the Spongey ship.  (Although I do question their choice of a pop-soup score that is to be provided by “Aerosmith, T.I., Sara Bareilles, Lady Antebellum, and John Legend.”  I guess it could work, but it feels like another purely commercial play.  There is a reason why one composer/lyricist team writes most Broadway musicals.  And they could have gained so much more legitimacy by hiring a tried and true musical theater team.)

Now, I could be wrong . . .  and SpongeBob could be a generation-busting fantastic musical that could revolutionize the form.  And I hope to G above that I am wrong, and that it is just that.

But I’m worried that it won’t be.  And I’m worried that the Broadway that supports that kind of show, over original work by new authors, by independent producers, is just not the Broadway where I want to be.

Ok, I’m done.  I’ll be more positive tomorrow.  Promise.

But in the meantime, what do you think of SpongeBob coming to Broadway?

 

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Comments
  • Dara Ely says:

    Thank you for deciding to write about this Ken! I was horrified by just the concept of this when the news came out a few weeks ago. And I don’t say that because I consider myself to be a highbrow theatre-goer or above anything … but come on, it’s Spongebob Squarepants. An assault on the senses.

    This is clearly coming from a place of financial greed and as you said when/if it comes, it’s going to take precious Broadway space away from more artistic and authentic greed. But I think the biggest concern is indeed the impression this concept gives to those outside the theatre-going community – if you’ve got enough money we’ll put it on stage. It makes Broadway an unfortunate punchline.

  • Miss Rori says:

    I wasn’t thrilled with this announcement either. In general, I think the Disney stage musicals have set an awkward precedent — they’ve made a lot of people and not just investors very happy worldwide, but they’re not great theatre. “The Lion King” is a beautifully-staged show, which I’m glad I saw after years of being asked why I hadn’t, but it was still just a bloated adaptation of something that worked better onscreen. And I’ve never understood why the stage adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” has proven so massively popular. (“Beauty” is my favorite Disney film, but the stage version is much too literal, and again bloated.)

    I admit to having become a cynic about most shows that are shooting for the family market and following Disney’s lead. In the years since “Beauty” debuted, the only corporate family musical I’ve ever taken to my heart has been the West End production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, in part because it wasn’t just a throw-a-movie-up-on-stage show but an fresh, witty adaptation of the novel with a few affectionate nods towards other versions of it thrown in. (In fact, I found it to be my favorite adaptation of the work.) I’d much rather see that underrated show get to New York than a Spongebob musical or any more Disney shows.

  • Nathan Clift says:

    A worse idea than Shrek (which had too much potential to be extraordinary).

    Let’s put the original musicals and fantastic adaptions back on Broadway. Not Spongebob. Anything but that.

  • Glenn Heath says:

    As much of a fan I am of the cartoon, I don’t see it. With the Disney franchise, there is at least a cohesive story line with the shows produced, as well as tried and true songs. Perhaps there is a market for this kinds of show…….like School House Rock Live, but even as a huge fan of Bikini Bottom, I say NO! Please NO! I’m not ready. not ready not ready.

  • Eleanor T. says:

    Speaking from an adult perspective, was never a big (or small) fan of Sponge Bob, but my grandchildren were. Mentioned this because it depends on who the target audience is. Obviously any and all (paying) age groups according to this blurb I found on Google: “Nickelodeon confirmed to Entertainment Weekly that Spongebob Squarepants is being developed for a potential Broadway show, with Aerosmith, T.I., Sara Bareilles, Lady Antebellum and John Legend supplying the music.” Remains to be seen. To paraphrase the lyrics from “Chicago”: “Give them the old razzle dazzle…razzle dazzle them… ” etc. etc.

  • Keni Fine says:

    It’s like trying to put square pants in a round hole.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    If it doesn’t get raves, like MATILDA, it’ll close, since only the matinees will do well, and that’s not enough.

    But if it gets raves, it’ll probably be great…so what’s the problem?

  • terry says:

    Watched SB-SP on TV with my granddaughter when she was 2, 3, or 3 even 4and enjoyed watching her enjoy it. It was (is) good entertainment for the 2-5 year old age group. I don’t see how bringing it to Broadway will change that audience demographic. I would not want to be a parent or grandparent paying Broadway show prices for my 3-5 year old child or grandchild to see this. I have taken my grandchildren (now 13 and 17 year of age) to many, many Broadway shows from the time they were 5 or 6, and Annie was the first for them. That’s a far cry from Sponge Bob, I think.

  • Jed says:

    I’m assuming this won’t be an adaption of the SB movie. So it will be a new story, gulp, an original story? Isn’t that what everyone wants, an original musical? Could be amazing.

  • David says:

    This has what commercialization and the greedy producers of the last few years to turn a quick buck have wrought. There is very little originality left on Broadway and is quickly happening on the Off-Broadway scene. Having said that, I personally know the people who have been working and developing this show for the past few years and they have all worked hard on this show so if it makes it, it makes it. It’s no worse than Hasbro games and characters being turned into movies.

  • Steven Conners says:

    All the above. Guess good music and good musicals don’t appeal to this nitwit generation. Sumner’s boys will probably make a mint. Matinees won’t do it but the public can easily fall in love with even bad R&R and a bad show. God protect us from the greedy bunch of no taste or talent. —sjc

  • David Rigano says:

    I’m getting very tired of seeing “musicals” coming to Broadway with compiled scores. We started it with Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Crazy for You, but it looks like it’s gone too far. Between this and First Wives Club and even Bullets Over Broadway, which I really enjoyed, where’s the room for composers in musical theatre?

  • Ed Katz says:

    You nailed it with your assessment, Ken!
    Another great post!

  • Annie says:

    SpongeBob is an original character with a lot of integrity. Creator Steve Hillenburg earned a degree in marine biology and taught the subject before returning to CalArts for his animation degree. He created SpongeBob to share his love of marine creatures and it shows in the series. The series has won at least one an Emmy and a number of Annie Awards.

    I am not so sure, Ken, that Disney’s long-standing theatricals success is the key driver here. There is a little Broadway musical you might have heard of called Book of Mormon, whose creators have a Viacom Comedy Central show called South Park. Mormon’s success may have whetted the company’s appetite. Or Stephen Byrd’s recent production of A Street Car Named Desire, in which I recall BET, another Viacom business, may have been an investor. Not to mention the touring success of White Christmas and the upcoming Andrew Lloyd Webber musical School of Rock, both licensed by Viacom Company Paramount Pictures, which also produced the firm version of Dreamgirls.

    SpongeBob is certainly not a guaranteed success as a Broadway musical, but he deserves his fair shot. If done right the underwater effects could be fantastic and there is a lot to love in the relationship among the key characters as source material. Viacom is a company that has some history of knowing popular taste in music through its MTV and related brands and skews MUCH younger in both its audience and staff than Broadway audiences. In addition, the company thrives on individual expression and diversity, values that Broadway shares.

    I, for one, would be very pleased if Viacom came to recognize theatricals as a viable extension for some of its well-loved brands and am rooting for success in this venture.

    [Note: In perfect transparency, I formerly worked at Viacom and have family members that worked for Disney.]

  • Landon Shaw says:

    I am VERY much with you (yet again) on this one, Ken! I was…I want to say shocked, but I am starting to become less and less shocked as I read the Theatre Index and see what is “in the works” lately. I was though MORE taken aback by this announcement, as I agree it just does NOT seem to fit the Broadway atmosphere at all. It seems like it should be playing the “arena circuit” ala “(FILL IN TH BLANK) on ICE” as that is where these cartoon characters and family shows play best. Not to mention they make tons of money between ticket sales, merchandise, parking, etc. and I am sure the overhead would not be nearly as much either. Therefore, it would be a win-win for Viacom! It would be different if they had something in their vault or something they owned that already was a musical (like Disney) or could easily transition into a musical. I know ROCK OF AGES is coming and Nickelodeon is also doing a TV version, so I don’t know if Viacom has a stake in the stage version, but they should stick with that. Not to mention families can see “Spongebob” at Universal Studios, which if anything would be a perfect place for them to do a 45 minute LIVE show, if they want to explore that avenue. Again, it is working well for Disney with FINDING NEMO and before they took over the great “White Way”, the theme parks served as a testing ground for more live presentations and still do.

    I also agree that if Entertainment Weekly (and I am sure other National Press will not be long behind) are already shooting it down, it is NOT a good thing for Broadway as a whole. It makes Broadway, Musical Theatre and I believe our the artistry of theatre almost look like a “joke” to the press and those that don’t know better. On the surface it looks like it is just about the $$$ (which it’s one thing for us on the inside to know, but that was supposed to be our secret) and it just kind of “dumbs” down the overall artistry of what Broadway is supposed to represent. “Spongebob” has ONE target audience, it is not like AVENUE Q or PEE-WEE or something along those lines that was fresh and targeted the adult Broadway audience.

    I also agree that if we had tons of open venues or if Broadway was known to have several “family offerings”, then this would be perfect. However, as I said, there is a niche that this falls under and is accessible to MANY families all over the country and is very inexpensive as well. The touring “ice” shows or character shows that play arenas, are great introductions for kids to live entertainment and serve a great purpose. I believe that having the creative team that is announced for “Spongebob” already is great and if they were to tour, they could actually RAISE THE BAR for these arena shows and be doing a great service there. I think it is a matter of knowing where your audience is, how can you reach them best and ultimately knowing what is best in the BIGGER PICTURE. Just because you want to play in the “Big Leagues” doesn’t mean you should!

  • W. Squier says:

    I agree with the last post. That the creators of South Park could not only write a viable Broadway musical was one day as farfetched (despite the obvious affection for integrated musical numbers they displayed on both their animated series and the South Park Movie). And they ended up not only successfully writing a musical with a lot of heart, but also luring a new, young audience to Broadway and touring houses all over the country. I watched a lot of Spongebob when my son was younger and found it a very fresh, creative cartoon with a touch of anarchy. Combine that with the visual possibilities that the series presents and it could be terrific.

  • Lewis says:

    Years back there was one of those television (Nickelodeon) phenoms called Rugrats. As an agent, I had an actor in the live touring company who wanted me to see her work. They brought the show into Radio City Music Hall for ten days (another stop was very near Chicago and that one was nine or ten days as well). I picked up my industry comp and was, as always with the Music Hall in those days (February 1998 was the tour’s start date and I attended during the early April leg,) I was treated very nicely. I’d arrived early (as usual for me) … and was alarmed by how few people were in attendance. This continued for some time — and then waves of audience came through those doors! By showtime, the place was packed and that’s 6,000 attendees each performance — for a ten day stop!

    The show was great fun … even more to surprise me.

    I think this whole Sponge Bob thing will play pretty absurdly … but my great-grand nieces and nephews have proven me wrong on the popularity of the material.
    Like the real estate industry and all its slimelords, greed will drive this, too.
    As the adage tells us, “Money talks … and shit walks!”

  • anzu says:

    I AM 100% WITH YOU KEN. I took my niece to see the Sponge Bob movie and I fell asleep. A musical? now? on Broadway? Why don’t they just go straight to Vegas? like the Duck Dynasty musical.

  • Rich Mc says:

    Completely agree, Ken. A terrible idea, demeaning to b-Way and occupying space otherwise utilized by more substantial content. I hope it flops!

  • Eric Goldman says:

    Ken, I hear you. On the one hand, it does seem that many Broadway shows are little more than tourist attractions — I assume Pirate Of The Caribbean: The Musical will be announced any day now. That being said, I just took my 11 year old daughter to see the Sponge Bob movie and when I told her about this show, she said she wanted to go. I can’t even get her to see Wicked, but this one she would do.

    Combining this blog post with your post about simulcasting, it’s time we all realized that new technologies are changing our industry. Pretty soon the only shows getting Broadway theaters will be franchise extensions, and the light and the heat will be in the 99 seat houses that are using technology to simulcast, collaborate across borders and transform live theater into its next incarnation.

  • David H. says:

    Maybe the best thing that could happen is that it opens, is a Moose Murders level disaster, and it will discourage others from floating this level of stupidity.

  • Marina Barry says:

    After seeing An American In Paris last night thinking that SpongeBob would share a Broadway house seems nuts. Talk about dumbing down audiences. Not that I have anything against SpongeBob or Barney or any of those characters, but there’s a place for them and it’s not necessarily Broadway.
    We can do better — should do better — what’s next — a reality musical with a non union cast?

  • Ilene Argento says:

    Horrible! I like seeing ‘bring the kids’ shows in Broadway, although, so many can’t afford to, but, GEEZE! SpongeBob? Really? I was just thinking today how wonderful it would be to see Hans Christian Anderson on stage. You know, the old Danny Kaye movie! Good for kids and adults, well, adults. I don’t know anyone who would fork out the kind of money that has to be formed these days to go see something like SpongeBob. I think it’s as embarrassing to Broadway as the Times Square pay-to-pose-with-me characters are! UGH!

  • Gerald S. says:

    What right do we have to refuse the opportunity for expression and creativity regardless of the genre!! In a world steaming with racism, we now want to apply that mind set to Broadway because we are limited by theatre space & the longevity of many of shows who draw visitors here from all corners of the globe. We need to embrace & understand diversity. I don’t like horror films but I do think that the consumer who does should be able to view them on channels that I enlist. As Hayley Mills crowed for Disney, LET’S GET TOGETHER!!! Tolerance is a virtue that we all need to expand.

  • Jim Cressman says:

    Please say Broadway isn’t stooping to this level.

  • Arnold Kuperstein says:

    No, you believe in bringing in a second rate, tired, Kander and Ebb musical, THE VISIT, that has been deemed unBroadway worthy for the last twenty years because you could twist the theatre owners arms because of your success with IT’S ONLY A PLAY. I fear more for Broadway with producers such as yourself who are more concerned with scalpers than regular theatre goers. Producers such as yourself are killing Broadway, VIACOM may save Broadway with an original product that appeals to the general public.

  • Opinion is only opinion and everyone has an opinion.
    When you have the money, win or lose you can call the shots. The public can attend the show and support it or run from it. Time will tell.

  • Alex says:

    It’s too late. Broadway jumped the shark in terms of Art years ago when broadway started making endless musicals out of endless movies.

    There is very little worth seeing and I tend not to go see movies “musicalized.” Broadway is becoming Branson which is more kitch than Vegas On the other hand – you can make more money selling 4 tix than 2. Sponge pants will be a great money maker. Watch for the Lego Broadway show next. It’s about making money now.

  • Jeryl M. says:

    I think its a sign of the apocalypse.

  • Brenda Chapman says:

    Maybe what we see as Greed will actually draw in an audience that is currently disenfranchised. We can only hope! I ALSO don’t like SouthPark. It’s brilliant and witty and current and I despise it. But no one can argue that it has been bad for Broadway!

    I don’t GET SpongeBob — at ALL. But as a longtime High School teacher, I just tell you there IS a message that young adults (read “Under 35”) DO take away from the show. Yes, there is the stoner kitsch, but to that hard-to-reach age, there is a value I just don’t see. If THOSE audiences come to their first Broadway show to see SpongeBob and hang around to see more, it could be a winning situation.

  • Christina Han says:

    I mean: Spiderman.. Then Spongebob. I understand the reasoning behind these shows, the fact that these shows are indeed for the kids and it is a major franchise that EVERYONE knows of. It’s honestly not as bad as people are making it out to be, compared to some of the shows that were out previously that will probably make less money that this obvious marketing scheme of “SPONGEBOB THE MUSICAL”. For example, that show about roaches- WHAT WAS THAT.

  • Zanne says:

    This isn’t a B’way musical … it belongs in some sort of mall entertainment center.

  • How long ago did Broadway succumb to the same forces at work in film and television; that lowest common denominator content will attract highest box office returns? I suspect it was a while ago

  • Timmy D says:

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. That’s All!!!

  • MIGHT be a good way to introduce the wee ones to the excitement of theater. When I was maybe 5, I saw a live musical called “Mother Goose a Go Go” in a large theater and I never forgot it. This could be similar and very fun for children, so it could be seen as a nurturing of future Broadway audiences for more sophisticated material. I envision a limited run so they can then hit the road as a “Direct from Broadway!” offering, no matter what the quality.

  • Getting The Investment Back Together says:

    How do you feel now that Spongebob got great reviews, swept the Drama Desk Awards, and you’ve produced/written one of the worst reviewed/attended Broadway Musicals in history, you egotistical buffon?

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Ken Davenport
Ken Davenport

Tony Award-Winning Broadway Producer

I'm on a mission to help 5000 shows get produced by 2025.

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