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:
It’s still too early to fully understand how Hamilton will affect the CREATION of new Broadway musicals.
Since their developmental periods are so long, the ones opening this season were started years before the $10 founding father conquered the Great White Way.
But I’m sure that many artists are in their labs now concocting other hip-hop musicals and modern riffs on Big American Stories. Hopefully some producers learn the most valuable lesson of all: Find a great writer, fund her idea — no matter how radical or time-consuming— and shepherd the entirety of the persistently-supported process through its conclusion.
But in terms of of the actual content of these future Hamilton-inspired musicals, I hope more composers follow Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lead by trying to largely avoid relying on any spoken words to communicate their stories. He of course didn’t invent the form — hello, operas and song-cycles! — but I’m hoping such a popular and lucrative example will increase their frequency in the seasons ahead.
Of course not all musicals will work without a dialogue-driven book, but trying to avoid needing one would improve so many. Though juxtaposing the realistic corporeality of everyday discourse with the spectacular fantasy of singing often increases the impact of both, more often than not, the power and quality of books pale in comparison to those of scores.
I’ve always believed that musicals are some of the trickiest pieces of art to create. Writing a story on one’s own is hard enough; merging the distinctness of multiple voices — that of the the book-writer(s) and composer(s) — into one cohesive whole on the page is exponentially more difficult. And since musicals often prioritize their music — as they should; what else sets apart musicals more than their music? That’s what audiences are paying to hear — the books usually must connect these songs into a comprehensible story, furthering it along while also introducing and developing characters, and often providing much-needed comedic relief. Phew.
I’m by no means trying to put all book-writers out of a job; I’m just saying that the scales are too imbalanced away from totally sung-through musicals. And since so few writers seem particularly adept at generating quality books, perhaps it’s time to switch up the formula a bit.
Both of the most acclaimed new musicals this season would’ve benefited from axing their books, thereby allowing their superior scores to more prominently enter the spotlight.
David Yazbek’s work in The Band’s Visit is unlike anything he’s done before. Instead of his usual bombastic musical comedy as found in the likes of The Fully Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he pares down his style to a more Middle Eastern vibe, befitting the musical’s setting. Even more impressive, each song possesses its own flavor, developing the characters by amplifying their inner emotional repression in ways that only music can.
Very little of this artistic alchemy is contained in Itamar Moses’ book, which needs to be play-like in its unconventional (at least for musicals) depth to match the score’s unconventional restraint grounded in deeply-observed human truth. Instead, it falls into too many common trappings; namely, the spoken transitions between songs feel rudimentary, as if the book only set out to achieve the sole job of bridging the gaps between songs instead of contributing sufficient substance in its own right. Whereas Yazbek’s score pulses with the organic humanity of life, Moses’ book never obscures the hand of its puppeteer. His scenes too transparently serve overly and overtly clear purposes in relation to the overall work, revealing a writer struggling to avoid artificiality by achieving his artistic goals with nuance.
Newcomer Kyle Jarrow’s book for SpongeBob SquarePants is even worse; then again, he had a taller mountain to climb. Whereas Moses had a two-hour story structure to borrow from The Band Visit‘s original movie, Jarrow had to boil down a multi-season TV series — told in a series of 20-minute units — into a comprehensible single evening. He fails at that, and at capturing its relentlessly creative irreverence, borrowing far too many uninspired musical theatre book tropes to match the rest’s perpetual originality.
And that’s another reason musicals would be better off focusing on scores alone: For the many based on pre-existing movies, changing the primary type of language employed further separates the adaptations from the usually beloved source material. Translating a story into a musical register changes enough to prevent those feared comparisons; simply moving dialogue from the screen to the stage is predominantly a recipe for woe.