A giddy mix of bright colors and clashing patterns brings beloved TV show to life on stage
How do you take a beloved two-dimensional cartoon and re-fashion it into a stage musical peopled with flesh-and-blood human beings? That is exactly the challenge designer David Zinn faced when he was asked by director Tina Landau to design sets and costumes for The SpongeBob Musical. The vision that Landau and Zinn developed for the show was all about being non-literal — this production would foreground the humanness of the actors and not try to hide them away in big, foam costumes. Nickelodeon, the show’s producer, had already done that version with its ice-show adaptation of the cartoon and they were looking for something different here.
“They wanted to find a way, with a kind of independent spirit, to match the wacky animation of the cartoon,” said Zinn. Landau invited the designer to an initial workshop where, rather than test driving the narrative, they explored what the physical rules of the game might be. “How does SpongeBob move if he’s not a yellow rectangle? Does he even need to be yellow? Does Squidward need to be green?”
In the final design, the show’s three heroes, SpongeBob and Sandy and Patrick, are dressed the most like real people, with the rest of the costumes spiraling out imaginatively from there. SpongeBob is dressed in checkered trousers with suspenders, a yellow shirt and a red tie (so ironically, he is wearing pants with squares on them rather than actual square pants). Sandy the squirrel, who in the TV show wears a diving suit (she is a mammal after all who hangs out on the bottom of the sea), wears a simple white jumpsuit, and Patrick is costumed in bright green shorts and a loud Hawaiian shirt over a magenta tie-die T-shirt.
Squidward, an octopus, gets a more fanciful costume, with prosthetic legs attached to the actor’s human ones.
“The extra legs seemed to be his defining characteristic,” said Zinn. “In that first workshop we experimented by attaching two pairs of jeans and creating four legs. It was an easy puppet sort of thing to make. At a certain point it became clear that he was going to get a tap number.” The image of Squidward’s stuffed legs rat-a-tatting behind his real ones is a musical highlight of the show.
The sets and costumes for SpongeBob are a giddy mix of bright colors and clashing patterns: “I am someone who really deeply embraces color and pattern and texture,” says Zinn. “I think all colors go together. That’s always been a part of my theatricality. In the TV show, they draw a fish and the fish is wearing a polo shirt, so there’s humor in that. So we’re putting those things on humans and trying to make the same leap. Color and exuberance are a way to bring us into the dreamy surrealism of the show.”
The overall design uses a wide variety of found objects, creating a sort of DIY aesthetic. In the cartoon, the town of Bikini Beach is made up of the detritus that ends up on the ocean floor: a restaurant is a lobster trap; SpongeBob lives in a discarded pineapple. Zinn fills his striking blue set with objects that children might encounter in their daily lives: a cluster of kelp is made out of pool noodles and a coral reef is crafted out of Solo drink cups and spike tape. Costume elements include mylar balloons for collars and ketchup squirters on hats. The freewheeling look of the show calls on the audience to use their imaginations to complete the vision, something kids have no trouble doing.
But the show is also intended for grown-ups: “Adults can love it. You don’t have to have a kid with you,” Zinn said. “We knew the kids were going to love the show, but it was made by and for adults.”
Zinn — who has received seven Tony nominations for his work and won one for his set for The Humans — is one of a rare breed of designers who is regularly asked to design both the sets and costumes for shows he works on. “There is a total satisfaction that comes from designing both,” the designer admits. “It’s a great luxury and privilege to be able to do that. You need to have particularly great staffs on both sides to be able to pick up for me when I have my other hat on. But it’s amazing to be able to create a complete world.
The SpongeBob Musical: Ticket information
- At a glance: A legendary roster of Grammy® Award winners. A visionary director and a Tony Award®-winning design team. One of the world’s most beloved characters. Turn them loose on stage and what do you get? Broadway’s best creative minds reimagine and bring to life the beloved Nickelodeon series with humor, heart and pure theatricality. SpongeBob and all of Bikini Bottom face catastrophe until a most unexpected hero rises to take center stage. The bold, original musical celebrates friendship, cooperation, and the power of unity and inclusion. The power of optimism really can save the world.
- Dates: March 10-22
- Where: Buell Theatre
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here: