There’s a possibility that SpongeBob SquarePants may force the Tonys Awards to move from Radio City Musical Hall this year to a grammar school auditorium next year.
If “The Broadway Musical for Everyone,” as it calls itself, wins the Best Score Tony, the American Theatre Wing will have to dispense no fewer than sixteen trophies to the sixteen songwriters who created the score for the musical.
Because those silver medallions on onyx bases run into money, they might well break the Tonys’ bank.
Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C.”
SpongeBob may mark a first in Tony history: the Best Score winners will reach the stage before the presenter finishes reading their names.
Talk to Broadway insiders, and they’ll tell you that SpongeBob won’t win Best Score, because it just has to go to David Yazbek this year. He’s been nominated three times, starting with The Full Monty, and now he can finally get the prize that has eluded him by virtue of his score for The Band’s Visit.
I’ve worked the Tony press room many, many times and can say that whoever wins – even when there’s a most unexpected upset – the seen-it-all journalists shrug and at best raise an eyebrow. But on June 3, 2001 when we heard Lily Tomlin announce that “And the Tony for Best Score goes to Mel Brooks, The Producers: The Mel Brooks Musical,” the sound of surprised “Ooohs” pervaded the room. Although The Producers was expected to win in every other category in which it was nominated, Broadway savants assumed that Yazbek would get Best Score because 1) The Full Monty deserved something and 2) It was indeed the Best Score.
So much for Broadway fortune-telling. So SpongeBob could conceivably wind up with Best Score. Considering the history of this show, you’d be wise not to bet against it.
For who expected a musical called SpongeBob SquarePants to get this far?
When the season began, the smart money was on Frozen, the obvious smash hit that was going to run until the sun burnt out. Well, Frozen did open on schedule but on Monday received only one-fourth of the nominations bestowed on SpongeBob.
(That’s twelve to three, if you’re scoring with us.)
In fact, when the producers of SpongeBob announced last June 5th that it would open at the Palace in “in the fall,” many were skeptical. It had opened an out-of-town tryout at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago almost a full year earlier, and when it closed on July 10, 2016, there was no immediate word that it was coming in. True, there’s a strong market for family musicals because good parents – bless their hearts, souls and minds – want their kids to become theatergoers and have the experience of seeing a musical the way it makes the biggest impression: not on a screen, but on a stage.
What’s more, who expected that any show would play the Palace? Word had come down that the theater – as strange as this may sound — was literally going to be raised by twenty-nine feet so that retail stores could be put underneath it.
(I’ve always said the reason the theater would be lifted was not to get additional rent, but because the understudy board needed to be made longer. So many actors call in sick these days. I guess the problem is that scripts are made of paper, and paper cuts can be enough to keep actors from performing. And speaking of paper, you may have noticed fewer trees in your neighborhood because they had to be cut down to make paper for those little inserts you get in Playbills that say “At this performance the role usually played by …”)
So the show that was dormant for eleven months seemed dead. Even when it was announced for the Palace, many assumed that the theater would cancel the engagement and instead go ahead with its refurbishment.
But SpongeBob beat the odds, didn’t it? It even made good on its promise to open “in the fall,” for December 4th is still two weeks before winter officially starts, isn’t it?
On Tuesday, no production received more Tony nominations than SpongeBob. (All right, Mean Girls got twelve, too.) But the previous Thursday, no production had received as many Drama Desk nominations as SpongeBob: eleven. Ditto the Outer Critics Circle nominations announced two days earlier: eleven. More to the point, that organization this week chose it the Best Musical of the season.
On the almost-original cast album you’ll hear the two actors who have been tabbed by all three committees: Ethan Slater, who plays SpongeBob himself, and Gavin Lee, who portrays Squidward Q. Tentacles.
Frankly, I don’t doubt that both could take home all three prizes. Slater is marvelously consistent in coming out with a voice that sounds as if he’s taken helium and has refused Ritalin. If he’s not the hardest working man on Broadway, he’s not far from it. He appears in six songs and is seldom off-stage.
Whenever a performer wins a Tony, the musical director often has his orchestra play a song that the character sings as the victor comes to the stage. It’ll be most fitting this year, for Lee’s big song is “I’m Not a Loser.”
You can tell from the recording that Lee tap-dances during it, but what you might not know (for no picture in the CD booklet will inform you) is that he must do this choreography with his own two feet and two other feet attached to his waist. (Remember: Mr. Tentacles is an octopus.) That Lee hasn’t fallen because of those encumbrances is one of this season’s biggest miracles.
SpongeBob SquarePants itself, however, is yet a bigger miracle.
Palace co-owner Stewart Lane told me a few months ago that plans are still in place to raise the theater those 29 feet. After all these nominations – and who knows how many wins? – Lane might be forced to wait a long, long time.
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.