Because when seeking to bring to musical life the take-charge ethos of an animated, sea-dwelling, anthropomorphic squirrel skilled in karate and various rodeo pursuits, of course you turn to the Flaming Lips.
“You just felt like anything was possible,” Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt says on the phone. “You get to just really use your imagination.”
Kitt is explaining what it was like helping orchestrate and arrange “The SpongeBob Musical,” the hit Broadway show based on the batty, beloved Nickelodeon cartoon series that earned 12 Tony Award nominations in 2018 — tied for the most that year — and is now a touring production.
The show’s music supervisor, Kitt both penned original material and contributed to the production’s novel way of generating its musical numbers: A bevy of artists, including David Bowie, rapper T.I. and Vegas’ own Panic! at the Disco, were recruited to write songs for the lively, full-throated romp. It follows SpongeBob and his crew of grumpy squids, affable starfish, cheapskate crab bosses, conniving plankton and more as they confront a potentially cataclysmic volcano that threatens their hometown of Bikini Bottom.
There’s the bluesy bluster of “Bikini Bottom Boogie,” courtesy of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry; the banjo-enhanced swing of “Chop to the Top,” written by Lady Antebellum; the exultant soul of “Super Sea Star Savior,” penned by gospel star Yolanda Adams; and more in the musical’s diverse, high-spirited score.
The way the process worked: Artists would submit songs in various states of completion and Kitt would arrange and orchestrate them for the show’s cast of actors to give them voice.
A Legend, and then some
“When I first came in, there were maybe seven original songs that had been contributed,” says Kitt, a Broadway veteran who’s worked on acclaimed productions from “High Fidelity” to “Next to Normal” to Green Day’s “American Idiot.” “They’d arrive in very different states. Some of them were produced demos; some of them were just piano scratch recordings. One artist was on tour in Europe and sang along with a track into their phone. We really got it in all different forms, and there were things that I would take and run with it.
“You’re wowed that you have this gem that no one has discovered yet,” he continues, “and you get to actually put it in rehearsal and work on it. You knew that these artists were going to bring something really inspired to the table, but because, in the moment, you’re hearing something that’s sort of blowing you away, it’s definitely a feeling of discovery.”
Some songs required more work than others. Take John Legend’s beatific ballad “(I Guess I) Miss You,” which he sent in as a demo.
“I think he was on tour, and it had this sort of raw quality, like he had just been performing a bunch and went into this side room and recorded it,” Kitt recalls. “I was so obsessed with the demo, because it’s such a window into the artist. It had an aching quality that was so personal that he brought to the song. I just wanted to stay out of the way. I added some strings on top of it, but we really wanted John’s beautiful piano arrangement to come through. I think I pretty much just sat down and transcribed what he had written.”
For Kitt, presenting the show on Broadway, where it debuted in December 2017, provided another challenge: The production’s 18-piece orchestra was the biggest he’d worked with up to that point.
“It was thrilling,” he says of opening night. “The numbers really all just crackled, they all had scope, and each one was landing. I’ll never forget the final performance: All those numbers stopped the show. The audience just couldn’t stop applauding for them.”
As Kitt speaks, he doesn’t try to contain the awe that lingers in his voice.
That’s the thing about SpongeBob — the cartoon, the musical, the movie — the joy at the root of the character.
And so you do as a sponge does: Soak it up.
“I just love that it’s in the world and people get to feel the emotion of this story,” Kitt says of the musical, “which I think, at the end of the day, is about humanity and, when we face adversity, how we need to rally and champion one another — or even when we’re not facing adversity.
“It’s about understanding, and people that believe in one another,” he adds. “I think the themes in this story are really quite beautiful.”