The SpongeBob SquarePapers: Orchestras

Sometimes fascinating failures inspire more thoughts to explore than straightforward successes. Such is the case for the SpongeBob SquarePants Broadway musical, a show that indirectly touches upon a wide range of subjects regarding the state of theatre (and other topics). In the coming days, I’ll excavate some of these ideas in a series dubbed The SpongeBob SquarePapers:


What do Hans Zimmer and the SpongeBob SquarePants Broadway musical have in common?

Answer: The former’s tour included an element that the latter, and most other Broadway musicals nowadays, sorely lack: a large orchestra.

When Zimmer decided to take his talents on the road, he amassed an orchestra big enough to fill the stage of Radio City Music Hall. As one of the most accomplished composers in the history of the silver screen (it’s impossible to list even a few of his credits without unfairly forgoing others; just click here to marvel at his illustrious career) who almost always records his film scores utilizing an untold number of musicians, he understands the power of a wall of music. At each concert, he would go from one of his famous scores to another, playing a medley of melodious compositions from them separated by behind-the-scenes stories he’d regale the audience with in his inimitable verbal style.

I attended one of his gigs with a musically-agnostic friend who tagged along not knowing much about what was in store, and he walked away A) with his mind blown, because Hanzzz is a crazy genius in every sense, and B) wanting to see a full movie in a theater accompanied by a live score. I informed him of two facts:

1) That used to be the norm in the silent film era; R.I.P. those gorgeous pipe organs.

2) Philharmonic companies tend to produce such evenings in most major metropolitan areas. The New York Philharmonic has provided me with some of my favorite nights in a theater EVER by screening classic movies whose scores are played live by their legendary orchestra. No matter the strength of a sound system, nothing can compare to the sheer impact of listening to a score conducted right in front of you. You don’t only hear the music; you feel it, allowing the story to cut you to the core even more.

Which is why it’s sooooooo baffling that Broadway musicals — whose stories are told PRIMARILY through music — tend to hire such small orchestras. Is there a more important part of a musical than its fucking music?!

Given my history working in a Broadway producing office, I’m well aware of the prohibitively-increased expenses incurred by contracting more musicians. But I’d argue that they’re a better use of funds than the other aspects that demand so much dough. Since A-list stars appear in plays far more often than musicals — which usually rely on pre-existing brands to sell tickets, such as SpongeBob SquarePants — their actors don’t command too much. Instead, a lot of the money goes towards the sets and costumes, because producers believe that audiences are more willing to pay for reliable spectacle than unknown quality. Simply put, they want to see their money on stage.

And that’s probably a true generalization. But audiences often don’t consider every factor that affects their overall enjoyment. Subconscious influence is very real in the arts, and I think producers severely underestimate how much sufficiently sizable orchestras can make audiences more immersed in the work, which can only positively influence their ultimate response to it.

Take SpongeBob SquarePants. Its creators had the brilliant idea of commissioning a range of popular musicians to each write one song for the score. As such, it’s a completely original jukebox musical, a novel concept befitting its relentlessly-novel source material. And yet, so many of these contributions are lost in translation when played by the measly in-theatre band.

The songs that sound the best are those that lean into instrumental simplicity, but that in no way means they’re actually the best songs. In fact, many of the ones that seem limp on stage come to life on the cast recording (which is the opposite of how a musical score should operate), where the studio engineers could digitally expand the required sound. The songwriters should not be faulted for these inferior numbers; it’s the orchestrator’s job to lead the transition from page to stage.

I’m sure Tom Kitt, SpongeBob’s orchestrator and a successful composer in his own right (Next to Normal!)was not granted an ideally-sized orchestra, like every other orchestrator on Broadway. I’ve heard and read so many complain about having to fight over the number of musicians the producers would be willing to pay. Yes, some scores don’t require such grandiosity, which is why those composers would want a deliberately scaled-down sound. But for those that know their musicals rely on magnitude, producers would be wise to heed their wishes.   

Lincoln Center’s throwback musical revivals — such as South Pacific, The King and I, and the upcoming My Fair Lady — are successful for a myriad of reasons (the most important: they’re good), but one of them is definitely the voluminous orchestra. By being totally immersed in the totality of their beloved scores, geriatric audiences are teleported back to a time when every show offered the treat of a full orchestra. If we can time travel that tradition back to Broadway today, many more audiences will be musically transported for years to come.

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