When Tina Landau's agent asked her if she would be interested in directing a musical based on SpongeBob SquarePants, she replied with a blunt "No."
"All that came to my head was a big, theme-park–style children's show with giant mascot heads and foam characters," she says. "That did not interest me."
But when she learned that the cartoon's creator, Stephen Hillenburg, wanted the show to be as eccentric as his original concept of a talking kitchen sponge living in a piece of fruit underwater, she changed her tune and agreed to sign on. Now, her wacky, inventive vision of Bikini Bottom has just made its Broadway debut – complete with a set of 18 songs penned by high-profile rock and pop artists ranging from the Flaming Lips, T.I. and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, to Panic! At the Disco, Sara Bareilles and even David Bowie.
Tom Kitt, a Pulitzer-winning Broadway composer and the show's musical director, said that the key to making the project work was allowing the artists to write in their own voice. "I very much wanted to make sure that the intention of the composition was really present," he tells Rolling Stone. "As all of these layers of musical theater were being applied, it was important to make sure that the artists' voices were front and center."
In the early stages of developing the show, Landau and her creative team had outlined a basic plot (a volcano threatens to destroy Bikini Bottom and SpongeBob is tasked with saving the day) and song ideas. Once they had their list of potential songs, the team began asking one another who would be the best fit for each tune.
When Tom Higgenson of pop-rockers Plain White T's received a call asking if he would contribute to the project, he was ecstatic. He had his sights set on writing a pirate sea shanty, but quickly realized why he had really been contacted.
"There was this one song that was, like, a friendship love song between SpongeBob and Patrick [Star]," Higgenson says. "Once I saw that, it was like, 'OK, they're probably reaching out to the Plain White T's for the love song, not the pirate song.'"
The song, "BFF," sounds like a deep-cut off of an early Plain White T's record – an acoustic guitar strums the melody while SpongeBob and Patrick sing sweetly about being best bros.
"They definitely embellished it and made room for those theatrical moments," Higgenson says. "But the basis of the song is literally the same key and the same little parts and everything that I first recorded. It's pretty cool."
For the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, his involvement with SpongeBob SquarePants extended back to the 2004 SpongeBob movie soundtrack. The Lips' song on that record, "SpongeBob & Patrick Confront the Psychic Wall of Energy," confirmed for Landau that they were one of the essential acts she needed for this show.
"I started saying very early on that this show should feel like a Flaming Lips concert," she said. "There's confetti in the air and balls in the audience."
Coyne and the band were tasked with composing the show's Act One closer, "Tomorrow Is," where the citizens of Bikini Bottom realize that they may only have one day left on Earth. According to Coyne, that drama is right within the Flaming Lips' wheelhouse.
"We have these songs that kind of hint at the epic nature of life," the singer tells RS. "Like a, 'If this is the last day on Earth, then make the most of it,' kind of thing. And I think [Tina] thought that we could naturally bring the drama that the show needed."
Throughout the songwriting process, Landau said that Coyne sent her a series of images of things like melting chocolate and "psychedelic paint" with little messages keeping her updated about where he was in the writing process. Coyne says that's something he often does when writing for other artists.
"I think it's a nice way to let people know that you're still thinking about them," he says. "But to be honest, I don't always put a lot of thought into the photos I send," he adds with a laugh.
David Bowie also had a history with the SpongeBob franchise. The late icon had voiced the character of Lord Royal Highness in a 2007 episode of the TV show called "Atlantis SquarePantis," so when Landau was considering who to contact, he seemed like a natural fit.
When she reached out to Bowie in 2012, he said that he was very interested, but "didn't have time" to write an original song for the musical.
"I'm not sure where he was with his health at that point," Landau says. "But he told us he wanted to contribute and asked us to go through his catalogue, and see if there was a song we could adapt."
Hoping to find a lesser-known Bowie song, Landau stumbled upon "No Control," a B side from the singer's 1995 Brian Eno collaboration 1. Outside. "It seemed like quintessential Bowie, and it fit thematically with what we were doing," she says, referring to the show's apocalyptic plot. "So with his blessing, we started adapting the music and lyrics to fit the show."
Only one other song from the show is an adapted piece: "Best Day Ever" was written by Andy Paley and Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob on the TV show, for a SpongeBob-themed album, though it was first heard in the franchise's 2004 movie.
Kenny says that the Brian Wilson–inspired song encapsulates the character of SpongeBob perfectly. "He totally believes every day is going to be the best day ever," he tells RS. "Sometimes he gets his little square ass kicked, just like the rest of us, but as he goes to bed, he pushes a reset button and says, 'Maybe tomorrow.' And that is what is so key to him."
Ethan Slater, who plays the titular sponge in the musical, agrees that what makes the character special is his unwavering optimism. He says he tries to bring that idea to every song he performs in the show, despite how eclectic the compositions can be.
"I'm always sort of changing, stylistically, the way that I'm singing," he says. "But it's never distinct from the character or the story."
Landau says that at the outset of this process, she was skeptical that she and her team would be able to realize their ambitious vision for the soundtrack. "I'm still, to this day, surprised, but it ended up not being the logistical nightmare you might imagine it could have been," she says.
But Kitt says he's not surprised that so many artists wanted to be involved with a show that is spreading a simple message of kindness and hope. "Everyone loves this character and this world," he says. "We all just feel blessed to bring joy and optimism to the world right now."