Interview with SpongeBob SquarePants director Tina Landau

Tina Landau

Tony Award nominee Tina Landau is not only credited as the director of the Broadway premiere of SpongeBob SquarePants, but also as the genius mind behind its creation and its whole raison d'être! Her innovative ideas were able to convince the big cheeses over at Nickelodeon that a Broadway musical based on perhaps their most beloved cartoon character would defy the odds and become reality. Fast forward a number of years and the production officially opened to rave reviews at the Palace Theatre from hardened New York critics and was honored with no less than six Drama Desk Awards, including "Outstanding Director of a Musical" for Ms. Landau and "Outstanding Musical", and a mammoth 12 Tony Award nominations.

Ms. Landau is both a director and playwright, who previously made her Broadway debut by directing the 2001 revival of Bells Are Ringing and went on to helm the Broadway premiere of Superior Donuts in 2009. She first made her mark on the New York theatre scene with her Lucille Lortel Award-winning book for the musical Floyd Collins at Playwrights Horizons in 1996, which she also directed, as well as providing the book and lyrics for Vineyard Theatre's musical Dream True: My Life with Vernon Dixon and serving as author and director of Space at the Public Theater in 1999. Since then, she has directed productions regularly off-Broadway, including hits such as Signature Theatre's Big Love in 2015 and New York Theatre Workshop's in 2012.

We recently caught up with the creative mastermind to discuss the challenges of transforming the popular SpongeBob SquarePants franchise for a Broadway audience...

Tina Landau in Interview
(Photo by Austin Yang)

Almost everyone who I have spoken to from the adult demographic, after seeing SpongeBob SquarePants, they have all said: “Do you know, I was pleasantly surprised!” Can you understand that reaction?

Yeah! The ‘pleasantly’ part of that reaction is because our show is a blast. It’s a load of fun and it’s filled with joy. So everyone that comes in, leaves smiling and happy. The ‘surprised’ part is what we’ve been battling. People hear the word ‘SpongeBob’ and not only do they think ‘kids show’ but ‘toddlers show’. It’s just been hard to convince people that it is a show we’ve built for us out of our taste. My new slogan about the show is: “SpongeBob… You can even bring the kids!”

The Cast of SpongeBob SquarePants
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

I can see it plastered across T-Shirts from tomorrow, Tina! And, of course, it’s the adults who are buying the tickets for Broadway shows. Was it a conscious effort on your part and Nickelodeon’s part to attempt to appeal more to them?

In making the show, we really wanted to be inclusive. We knew we sort of had a built-in audience with families and it turns out that millennials are superfans and come to our show multiple times! But the audience we’ve been targeting and speaking to is the adult audience. We want to let people know it’s great to come here on a date night or just a regular night out at the theatre on Broadway. The show has adult elements and kid elements, all in one.

Tina Landau at the 2018 Drama Desk Awards
(Photo by Tom Millward)

What was the most rewarding challenge as a director in bringing a two-dimensional cartoon to life on stage?

Well, the whole thing was rewarding because Nickelodeon really supported the experimental process and the development of it. We didn’t even know at first if this idea was even possible. We did all these workshops and I think the toughest one to crack was SpongeBob himself. What does he look like? We knew Ethan [Slater] was our guy from the beginning, but we couldn’t figure out what he was wearing. Out of all the costumes, it ended up actually being probably the simplest one because we learned that what worked best was actually the brilliance and heart of that actor.

(Photo by Austin Yang)

SpongeBob SquarePants Tickets are available now for performances through to September 2, 2018.