Interview with Kyle Jarrow, Book Writer of The SpongeBob Musical
Posted on 07/04/2019
One of the world’s most beloved characters is now the star of a Broadway Musical! The SpongeBob Musical makes it's State Theatre debut Nov 29-Dec 1. Book Writer Kyle Jarrow joins us to chat about how he landed the job of working on this Nickelodeon powerhouse and just what it was like bringing cartoon characters to life on stage.
Read the Transcribed Interview Below
with Bert, Kelly, and Hanna from All Access and special guest Kyle Jarrow.
Bert: Hello again and welcome to All Access with State Theatre New Jersey, this is the show each and every week that takes you backstage, behind the curtains and behind the scenes at the legendary State Theatre in downtown New Brunswick. It is Bert here, so great to have you tune into the show this week, Kelly Blithe is here and Hanna Wasserman is here, hello ladies!
Bert: So much excitement about the Broadway season at State Theatre and I have got my calendar marked. I’m going to try to see all four performances of The SpongeBob Musical that’s how excited I am about it coming to State Theatre but to open the show this week we have someone who is with that show, would you like to introduce our guest
Kelly: Yes! With us today is the book writer for The SpongeBob Musical, so very exciting to have Kyle Jarrow, welcome Kyle!
Kyle: Hey, I’m excited to be here!
Kelly: Yes we are too, can you tell how excited we are? Particularly Hanna, she loves SpongeBob and she saw the show on Broadway and she’s so excited to see this come to the State Theatre. So Hanna, what do you want to ask Kyle?
Hanna: Well I have seen this more than once on Broadway, and I have so many things I want to ask Kyle!
Kyle: Ask away!
Hanna: Alright, so let’s start at the beginning. This is Nickelodeon, this is Spongebob, it is a juggernaut of a name so can you walk us through just the process of how The SpongeBob Musical came into existence, what was the process like of just getting this character and this known entity onto a Broadway stage?
Kyle: Yes, great question! Well, so it actually started a while before I was even involved. I know that Nickelodeon was interested in finding a way to bring this character to the stage. The first thing they did actually was hire the director, Tina Landau, who’s amazing as you know from having seen the show and they talked a lot about just stylistically how they could bring that surreal, awesome, underwater world of SpongeBob to life on the stage. One of the things they arrived at, again this is before I was even involved, was that it was not going to be a show with what we call “walk around costumes” you know those like mascot costumes from theme parks and stuff, it was not going to be that. It was going to be a challenge to find a more theatrical and a more original way to depict these characters. Once they had figured that out they said okay now we need a story, and that’s where I came in. I’m a huge fan of SpongeBob, have been for years and years, and when Nickelodeon started reaching out to agents and stuff saying hey, we’re developing this, when I heard about it I was like I have to, HAVE TO, take a meeting on that! I was lucky enough to take a bunch of meetings with Tina, with Nickelodeon, and they hired me. Then we had to figure out, how are we going to make a story for this musical? In some ways that was actually the hardest challenge because the TV show is 11 minute episodes, if you think about what can happen in an 11 minute episode, that’s not going to be enough to sustain you through a whole night at the theater. I started thinking, okay we need a story that is going to have the sort of kind of stakes that can really take you through a whole evening and bring you on an emotional journey but also needs to have the possibility for comedy, for that kind of wacky, surrealist humor that we all know from SpongeBob. So I started thinking, okay like what’s a scenario that would allow for both of those things? Then I was like you know what, what if it’s the end of the world? That’s the highest stakes possible! So I pitched that to Tina and Nickelodeon, I thought for sure they’d tell me I was crazy, but they didn’t! They said go for it, so that is the story! It’s basically what happens when SpongeBob faces the end of the world. I kind of think of it as SpongeBob meets the movie Armageddon if that makes any sense. So we arrived at that story and then I started outlining it and we were like okay we have to figure out who is going to write the music and decided to actually have each song by a different artist, and we have all original songs by amazing artists including Flaming Lips, John Legend, T.I, Cindy Lauper, all these amazing pop artists wrote songs for this show. That was sort of the last piece of the puzzle, we put it all together and The SpongeBob Musical is what we made!
Kelly: I mean when I think of the end of the world, I think wacky right!
Kyle: I mean there is a tradition of that right? Like Chicken Little is kind of an end of the world story!
Kelly: True, I love Chicken Little! But obviously one does not go from 0 to 60 in wacky humor right, you said you wanted this job and you felt like it was for you, so what was your background in leading up to this wacky humor, end of the world scenario in the world of SpongeBob?
Kyle: I mean I have a background as a writer; I have done a bunch of theater stuff mostly more like downtown, kind of slightly more avant-garde style stuff and I also write for film and TV. I think most of the stuff that I write has an off-filter humor but to be honest the fact that I am such a fan of SpongeBob is the thing that served me the best. I have watched I kid you not probably every episode ever of SpongeBob. I hadn’t watched them all before I got the job, I have watched a lot, but I watched the rest after I got the job and it’s kind of about soaking in the tone and the humor and getting to know the characters so well that when you sit down to write an original story of them, they’re kind of in your blood if you know what I mean. I guess that was kind of the background that prepared me to do it. Honestly, I was totally terrified because writing about something you love; we all fantasize an episode of our favorite TV show or whatever but if you actually had to do that it would be terrifying right because you wouldn’t want to screw it up! So I won’t lie I was kind terrified but you know I buckled down and I did it and I think it turned out okay.
Hanna: So after watching all of these episodes of SpongeBob, did you find that there were any characters that were easier for you to write for like they just kind of came naturally, and were there other characters that were harder for you to write for and to kind of come up with what their role in this show would be?
Kyle: You know, in a funny way, the hardest character I think is SpongeBob himself because what’s so special about him as a character is that he’s an eternal optimist, right I mean that’s one of the things that I love most about SpongeBob. But, the thing with that is, you need a character to be upset to have a crisis to deal with, especially when you’re trying to tell an emotional story with big stakes. Usually when Spongebob gets upset he kind of like bursts out into sudden crazy tears and then he gets over it pretty fast, at least that’s sort of how it works in the TV show. Trying to figure out a way to go for something where SpongeBob can have sort of a deeper emotional crisis that he could really work through over the course of an evening of theater, but also be true to the fact that this is a character who is that eternal optimist, it was kind of tricky to find that sweet spot; to honor the optimism but also make sure that he was dealing with some real emotion. So to be honest, that was the toughest part was figuring out SpongeBob, but I think we did it. It was sort of about making this crisis, the end of the world, where the only person who thought that he could fix it, the only person who still had optimism, was SpongeBob. And so what he’s up against is everybody else saying “we can’t fix this,” everybody else sort of spiraling out in all these crazy directions and the one optimistic guy/sponge trying to find his way through. That was kind of how I ultimately solved that but it was tricky to figure that math out.
Kelly: And obviously it paid off, you were nominated for a Tony® and that must have been like an amazing feeling, right? Walk us through what happened when you realized that you were nominated!
Kyle: The show itself was nominated, and I was nominated thank you, for I think 11 Tonys®, which was a real honor! I don’t know, it’s wild right, because you obviously never do anything for awards, you just kind of dream of that, so it was just an incredible honor. But, I would say also for me, and I think I speak for a lot of us who worked on the show, it’s tricky when you work on these commercial properties with a big title behind it, I think it’s really easy for an audience to think, okay that’s just going to be another corporate thing and it might be fun but it is not going to have a lot of substance to it. And I know that Tina and I and all of our collaborators, and Nickelodeon too, went into the show wanting to make something that DID deliver on the humor and the spectacle and all the things that you expect, but also had something a little deeper to say and had some real substance to it. We just weren’t sure, were audiences or critics really be willing to go there with SpongeBob, or were they just going to feel like it is this sort of commercial thing and there’s no room in there for saying more profound stuff. I guess what I’m saying is the Tony® nominations and all the awards and stuff; we won the Drama Desk for Best Musical, to me that was really the critics, and audiences too, saying “hey, we get what you’re trying to do and we think you succeeded. You made this fun, spectacular ride of a show but it also does have something a little bit deeper, something more substantial at the heart of it.” I think that just felt really validating, if that makes sense, and I think we were really proud that we were able to make that in the world of Spongebob. By the way, that’s not to say the show is not just super fun, super funny, and super wild, but it does have something to say about the way people turn against each other when they get scared and the way that we should come together as a community instead of coming apart. I know that sounds kind of cheesy when I say it now, but I think that is a profound message, and that is the moral at the heart of this show.
Hanna: Yes, so SpongeBob adjacent, not quite around the show, I know that you and your wife, Lauren Worsham, are involved in a band called Sky Pony, can you give us just a little insight as to how that band got started?
Kyle: That’s right, yes so my wife Lauren Worsham is also a Tony® nominee, by the way she’s an actress and she was Tony®-nominated for being in A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder a few years ago, and we’re both involved in the theater and we’re both musicians but we sort of never worked together. We were like “hey, we should try to work together to see what that’s like.” So, I don’t know we decided let’s start a rock band. I’ve always kind of had rock bands, always did growing up and I sort of missed doing it. So we pulled together some friends who are also musicians; there are actually eight people in the band total. We started this band and it’s kind of this very theatrical, pop sound; art pop maybe you could call it. It’s a lot of fun, and it really did start as a way for Lauren and I to get to work together and spend some time together working. We’ve got a following, we’ve got a record on Knitting Factory Records, Sky-pony.com is our website if people want to check it out. It’s something I really love doing, and you know what’s nice too is, probably your listeners know, it takes so long to make a Broadway musical. The SpongeBob Musical was in development for I think something like seven or eight years, and I was involved for about five years. Even film and TV, the other stuff that I do, it just takes a while you know. The great thing about a rock band is you can write a song, and then you can go play it at a gig the next week, and you can hear it in front of an audience and you can instantly get a reaction; is it a good song, or does it still need some work? For me and I think for Lauren too, it’s sort of nice to have that to balance off that slower pace of some of these other things that we’re involved in. So that’s part of what’s fun about the band too!
Kelly: Nice! Well, the multi-talented Kyle Jarrow! Thank you so much for being on the show today. Of course it’s The SpongeBob Musical, November 29th, 30th and December 1st coming to the State Theatre, and its State Theatre debut. That is the weekend after Thanksgiving, which is an amazing weekend for a show to go out and see it, and bring your friends and families! Thank you so much Kyle for being on the show and we look forward to November/ December!
Kyle: My pleasure and I hope you both check it out and enjoy the show, thank you so much!