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Getting a Head Start on SpongeBob SquarePants By Peter Filichia

You enter the theater to see a musical without knowing the score – and then discover songs you Love at First Hear.

With a revival, thanks to your previous spins of the original or studio cast album, you know the score inside out before you enter the theater. You can tell what songs are coming and prepare to savor them before they arrive.

Many of us will have that experience this season when Once on This Island, Carousel, My Fair Lady and perhaps Crazy for You are revived on Broadway.

Or you got the album days, weeks, months or even years before you get to see the musical; thus, you’re well prepared for what you’ll hear.

Not that often, however, do you have a chance to become acquainted with a Broadway score before the show makes it to town.

Old-timers did with The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd and Oliver! Producer David Merrick had both shows’ cast albums on the street long before their official Broadway opening. As a result, people knew “Who Can I Turn To?” and “Consider Yourself” before they even considered turning to their ticket broker.

In the ensuing years, concept albums helped us to know many musicals before their stage debuts. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Who’s Tommy and Jekyll & Hyde are among the many that allowed us a sneak preview of coming Broadway attractions.

But now we have an actual Original Cast Album of an incoming Broadway musical: SpongeBob SquarePants, which begins previews at the Palace on Nov. 6 prior to an official opening on Dec. 4.

Tina Landau, its director who conceived the show, recruited twenty-two pop songwriters to provide the score. She added an already-known tune from David Bowie and Brian Eno (“No Control”) and “Best Day Ever,” which Tom Kenny and Andy Paley wrote for the eightieth episode of Nickelodeon’s famous TV series. Then, for good measure, she included a few measures of the now-famous “SpongeBob SquarePants Theme” in the curtain call.

Asking twenty-two in-demand songsmiths to come up with one song results in a much-faster-written show. Had Landau asked a single composer-lyricist or one team to fashion seventeen songs, we might have had an empty Palace all winter long.

Besides, Landau wanted an eclectic score and got one: “A whimsical assortment of styles and genres,” as she puts it – and “from the music – not theater – world.”

That said, Landau did settle for two writers with Broadway experience: Sara Bareilles, whose Waitress is now in its second year and Cyndi Lauper, whose Kinky Boots recently passed its fourth anniversary.

Lauper decided to have SpongeBob bravely proclaim that “Hero Is My Middle Name”; Bareilles decided to follow in the musical footsteps of Tim Minchin, who had his Matilda and Groundhog Day start their second acts with songs from newly introduced characters. Here Bareilles gives us Patchy the Pirate to complain about the treatment given to members of his occupation. (And yes, Captain Hook does get a mention.)

Actually, SpongeBob, despite being a member of porifera hippospongia rather than homo sapiens, is an ideal musical theater character. He has the optimism that has been the trademark of heroines and heroes from Annie to Zorba. No wonder that the three gentlemen from the group The Flaming Lips wrote a song called “Tomorrow Is” for SpongeBob and everyone else to sing.

SpongeBob’s zeal for frying hamburgers at Krabby Patty – one of Bikini Bottom’s best fast fooderies – is matched only by Dolores Dante’s zest for waiting on tables in Working. But from Ahab to Zach, a musical also has a pessimist or at least a realist to counter every optimist. Eugene Krabs, SpongeBob’s employer, is grooming his daughter Pearl to become manager. She doesn’t want the job, but SpongeBob certainly does. That cynical Squidward views SpongeBob and his pal Patrick as “Idiots in stereo” won’t help.

Neither does an earthquake. “No point in making plans,” the TV newsman sings, tweaking the Bowie lyric. That’s especially likely because Mount Humongous, an up-till-now dormant volcano, is threatening to blow.

As SpongeBob hunkers down in his underwater house, he sees this as an opportunity to spend more time with his “BFF” (the song that Tom Higgenson, Plain White T’s lead singer, wrote). “Every little thing that I can think of doing just sounds better doing it together” is a lyric worthy of a non-cockeyed optimist.

Sheldon Plankton – Krabs’ arch-enemy and restaurant rival – tries to send Bikini Bottom into a panic. His song starts “When the Going Gets Tough” but the line isn’t completed with the usual “the tough get going.” Clifford Harris, his son Domani and Darwin Quinn of T.I. fame instead have Plankton state “That means it’s time to get lost.”

SpongeBob instead sticks out his chin and grins and says “I’m not just the sponge next door.” He’s determined to make everything right in a song that Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco wrote in mock-heroic fashion. SpongeBob insists that he will no longer spend his time with his “head in the bubbles.” The melody also includes a time-honored musical move known to many a Broadway song: a modulation that literally takes the song to the next level.

Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros contributed “Daddy Knows Best,” Krabs’ song to Pearl. “Let me tell you what counts more than all the rest,” he insists.

Love? Family? The Brotherhood of Man?

“Money,” he states unequivocally.

Pearl finds that all-too-shallow, but Krabs won’t listen. (Her “Daddy, can you hear me?” brings to mind an almost-identical lyric from an earlier iconic rock property.) But there are none so deaf as those who will not hear: Krabs keeps encouraging Pearl to value money over all else. What a beast to ruin such a Pearl!

Patrick isn’t going to sit still during this emergency. Five-time Grammy-winner Yolanda Adams wrote that he’s the “Super Sea Star Savior.” And Adams knows from saviors, given that she’s considered The First Lady of Modern Gospel.

Well, it all ends happily, but not until we hear songs from members of Aerosmith, Lady Antebellum, They Might Be Giants as well as geek superstar Jonathan Coulton. All in all, the score has a perkiness as well as, to quote an Ira Gershwin lyric, a sunny disposish.

It just might make you fall in love with SpongeBob Hero SquarePants.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.