CD Review: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS THE NEW MUSICAL (Original Cast Recording)

by Tony Frankel on October 24, 2017

in CD-DVD,Music,Theater-New York

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A SPLISH SPLASH MISHMASH

After a successful out-of-town tryout in Chicago, SpongeBob SquarePants The New Musical is opening on Broadway this November. To whet the public’s appetite à la the “Abominable Showman” David Merrick, a recording was completed and is now available on Masterworks Broadway—hence the descriptor “Original Cast” not “Broadway Cast,” even though the actors you hear are slated for Broadway. (A special two-LP vinyl version will be released later to coincide with the Broadway opening.) At first look, I thought this was a new musical called Original Cast Recording, as the majority of the cover art is a graphic which spells that out in marquee light bulbs, swallowing the actual title beneath it.

Situated squarely over the “pon” inside the SpongeBob title art is something very telling: This spot, which used to be reserved for a star or songwriter, has one word: Nickelodeon. This cable giant, which mostly airs original series targeted to kids and adolescents, is the corporate behemoth behind the musical adaptation of its wildly popular 18-year-old animated show.

I then noticed that this self-proclaimed “BROADWAY MUSICAL FOR EVERYONE” was seemingly written by everyone. Along with the series’ theme song, written by Derek Drymon, Mark Harrison, Stephen Hillenburg, and Blaise Smith, and a previously written song by David Bowie (“No Control” from his 1995 collaboration with Brian Eno, the concept album Outside), and one written for the TV show by Andy Paley and Tom Kenny (“Best Day Ever,” with its Partridge Family-meets-Stephen Schwartz super-sunny, seventies sound), Tina Landau, the musical’s director who conceived the show, recruited twenty-two pop songwriters.

The contributors are a living jukebox of contemporary standard bearers covering Rap, Gospel, Country, Rock, Singer/Songwriter and more: Yolanda Adams; Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith; Sara Bareilles (Waitress); Jonathan Coulton (“Code Monkey”); Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and Rob Hyman (of The Hooters); Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros); Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Derek Brown (of The Flaming Lips); John Stephens (known as John Legend); Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, and Hillary Scott (of Lady Antebellum); Brendon Urie (of Panic! At the Disco); Tom Higgenson (of the Plain White T’s); John Flansburgh and John Linnell (of They Might Be Giants); and Darwin Quinn, Domani Harris, and Clifford Harris Jr. (T.I.)

That’s 3o songwriters.

It’s important to take note, because I believe with this one show (which I suspect will be a hit) and subsequent CD, we are seeing the immediate transition from jukebox musical to hodgepodge musical.

Here’s the recipe for SpongeBob:

One: Instead of familiar songs added to a new book, insert familiar characters in a new story: An underwater town, Bikini Bottom, is threatened by an impending volcanic explosion. While a rock concert is planned by some citizens to fund a mass exodus, three unlikely heroes—the wholesome, generous, optimistic SpongeBob, his dim-witted starfish BFF, Patrick, and a scientific squirrel, Sandy Cheeks—do their best to save their beloved city.

Two: Find a slew of pop writers who will each contribute one song. The show is written much faster this way.

Three: Find an arranger—in this case, Next to Normal‘s Tom Kitt—who can do a yeoman’s job of flavoring each tune with snappy orchestrations and a bubble gum pop rock veneer.

Four: Create (by all accounts) a lavish, eye-popping, colorful, cheerful production populated by lovable actors, and we have a glorious Corporate America octopus poised to suck profits with each tenacious tentacle. (That’s not necessarily a gripe; I love Disneyland.)

When Merrick released recordings of Oliver! in 1962 and The Roar of the Greasepaint in 1965 before both opened, each score had definite hits which could be covered by more than one artist. I can’t see how SpongeBob was released early for its hit songs; sure, some are fun, but it’s a splish-splash mishmash that is a whole greater than its unabsorbing parts with very few standouts. Still, upon several listens, which was necessary just to parse through those 30 writers, some songs—clammed, I mean crammed as they are with feel-good messages—grew on me. Kinda like algae.

The buoyant, bouncy, bodacious “Bikini Bottom Day” introduces us to all the characters and their idiosyncrasies. Jonathan Coulton has given us the one catchy, witty song that all others should aspire to. The voices are dynamite and distinctive. Winsome Ethan Slater’s nasally take on SpongeBob is truly endearing. In this tune, the asexual Sponge and Starfish mention a TV show called Mermaid Man and then can’t figure out what rhymes with “rock.” Sadly, that kind of parody and satire is lacking in most of the songs.

But this is hardly the first show to have a bang-up enjoyable production and good book with a shoulder-shrugging score, especially in this century (last century saw a slew of bang-up scores attached to lousy books).

Take for example Cyndi Lauper’s less-than-serviceable “Hero Is My Middle Name”: it’s nothing more than an After School Special pop sound with a repetitive one-line catch that’s better-suited for Radio Disney than the theater. And as with Kinky Boots, her lyrics don’t always make a whole lot of sense:

“You’ll find all the strength you need inside
Like Poseidon riding ‘cross the tide
Don’t let this moment pass by”

Huh?

Ah, yes, the lyrics.

The deliciously awesome “No Control” gets a Bowie tribute from the earthy, gravelly vocals of Kelvin Moon Loh as Perch Perkins, but after a terrific opening, the words are just squished into musical phrases (and the characters don’t fit the tune’s psychedelia/music hall style).

A great song is “Poor Pirates,” a seaside shanty with an oom-pah-pah waltz written by Sara Bareilles; sung by SpongeBob Fan Club President Patchy the Pirate (Jason Michael Snow) it’s very clever, but imperfect rhymes just ain’t my thing (“rogues” with “knows”; “earrings” with “feelings”). According to Stephen Sondheim, perfect rhymes don’t just work better with a musical line, they help a theatergoer understand a lyric on first listen. He also noted, “False rhymes are death on wit. A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. A near rhyme only dampens the impact.” This is why bringing pop writers into the theater in the last two decades isn’t making me laugh.

Alex Ebert’s “Daddy Knows Best” has perfect rhymes but they’re very simple; it’s in the right direction, but the song becomes a poor man’s “Money” from Cabaret. Christian/Gospel Queen Yolanda Adams’ “Super Sea Star Savior” is pure gospel lacking a strong melody and interesting lyrics. The singers, led by Lauralyn McClelland, are amazing, but this is clearly a number that needs to be seen. It should have been like Guys and Doll‘s “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”; instead, it’s a poor man’s “Zero to Hero” from Hercules.

The Flaming Lips’ “Tomorrow Is” begins with a delicious ballad, but soon becomes a one-note melodic experiment; likeable enough if you don’t mind a slew of clichés served up as an Act I closer which dreams of being Les Miz‘s “One Day More” when it grows up.

And that’s pretty much what you get throughout: Simplistic songs designed to slip down your intellectual throat like a slippery oyster—not much really sticks or, worst of all, surprises. And some should have been cut post-haste: Lady Antebellum’s “Chop to the Top,” a country-pop tune wholly unsuitable for the Squirrel and Sponge, feels like an exercise video for a 6-year-old.

Not surprisingly, two of my favorite songs were written by singer/songwriters. Brendon Urie (of Panic! At the Disco) gives us “(Just a) Simple Sponge” a post-alt-rock soaring ballad, and John Legend offers an enchanting buddy song, “(I Guess I) Miss You.” (And both titles start with parentheses!)

Also likeable is They Might Be Giants’s “I’m Not a Loser,” with the always winning Gavin Lee (the original Bert in Mary Poppins) as Squidward Tentacles. It’s awash in clever double-and triple-negatives, and gives the show a tapping eleven o’clock number. And T.I.’s rap perfectly suits Nick Blaemire’s devious Sheldon Plankton as he argues with Stephanie Hsu as his contrary computer Karen in “When the Going Gets Tough” (if only rap suited SpongeBob).

This is another middling score from Broadway; some of it works, some of it doesn’t. But it’s an immediate game-changer which, because of a boffo production, will absorb profits like a thirsty sponge.

Chicago tryout production photos by Joan Marcus

SpongeBob SquarePants – The New Musical
Original Cast Recording
Nickelodeon on Masterworks Broadway
1 disc | 18 tracks | 57:32
released September 22, 2017
for buying options, visit Masterworks Broadway

for the Broadway production, visit SpongeBob on Broadway

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