Trigger warning: mention of suicide
It’s a few minutes after 10pm on July 7th, 2018. I am finishing up a twelve hour tech day for the
production of Newsies I’m in rehearsals for. I go grab my phone, which I haven’t touched in
hours, and see my notifications are blowing up. My heart sinks as I read every text and DM I get.
“So sorry it’s closing.” “Sending my love, I know how much this show meant to you.”
It’s an odd thing to say, but say it I must: For the 9 months it spent on the Great White Way,
SpongeBob SquarePants was the go-to relief for my anxiety and depression, even just for a few
hours at a time.
This isn’t the first time a show has saved my life. In 2015, I was struggling to feel happy about
where I was in my life. I was at a college that was not right for me, I was nigh-friendless, and I
was struggling to know what I wanted to do with my life. I was on the edge of doing something
reckless - possibly suicide - when I bought a ticket on whim to see the first preview of a show
called Something Rotten! That first preview gave me the light, hope, and joy I needed to stay
alive. And I wielded that hope and joy the show gave me proudly. In the nearly two years Rotten was on Broadway, I saw the show 37 times (thanks to the best rush policy on Broadway) and developed a sort of friendship with many of the cast members and even the writers of the show.
I realized I wanted to become a playwright because of this show. Something Rotten! and the St.
James became my safe space, my second home when I needed cheering up, and my favorite
place in the world.
Anyway, from one safe space to another.
A few years ago, when the news broke that Nickelodeon was developing a Spongebob
SquarePants musical for a Chicago tryout for a potential Broadway run, I think I was one of the
few legitimately positive-thinking people in the theatre community who saw this news and
immediately went “that sounds like it could be absolutely stellar in the right hands.” In the right
hands it was. The Chicago production in summer of 2016 was absolutely awesome – I may have
resorted to some questionable measures to actually get to see it – but after that the wait to see it live in New York was beyond stressful.
What Tina Landau, David Zinn, and company had
created looked and sounded absolutely spectacular, but where in New York could it play? I was
hoping it would take the Marquis, but the second they announced they’d take the Palace in the
fall of 2017 I was thrilled – SPONGEBOB IS FINALLY COMING TO BROADWAY! – but also
worried. The Palace has had plans to renovate for a few years now. Would putting a show there
risk having a short run, or could it beat the odds and run a few years? I have always considered
SpongeBob as a character a bit of a kindred spirit, so my mind chose the optimistic answer.
Cut to first preview at the Palace Theatre, November 6, 2017. The past few weeks have been a
complete drain to my mental health. For the majority of the beginning of my first semester at my new college (Marymount Manhattan College) I have been dealing with being gaslit and verbally abused, and my mental health is at its worst since 2015. My anxiety is at an all time high.
With my ticket in my hand I walk into the Palace and am immediately transported to another world. David Zinn’s gorgeous future-Tony-winning scenic design already has me immersed.
In that moment, I just knew I was going to love it live. I was right. That night I fell hopelessly in
love with every single thing about the show (and it was only first preview – I immediately
bought a return ticket for a few days later… and again, and again.) Kyle Jarrow’s witty and
wonderful book that contained nearly everything you’d want in a good episode of SpongeBob,
and then some! Christopher Gattelli’s showstopping choreography! Tom Kitt’s seamless
orchestration work that made the gloriously eclectic score by pop and rock icons sound coherent and cohesive! Tina Landau’s perfectly bonkers and genius direction! AND OH GOODNESS, THAT CAST.
I could go on for hours about every individual member of the cast of the show – Wes Taylor’s
hilariously evil Plankton, Lilli Cooper’s plucky and badass Sandy, Danny Skinner’s flawlessly
dumb Patrick, Gavin Lee’s showstopping Squidward… every single person in the leads and in
the incredible, diverse ensemble pulls their weight and delivers a brilliant good time. But the
success of a show like this hinges the star of the show – and Ethan Slater, just 26 years old, gives the kind of performance that is spoken of in legends.
Ethan Slater is SpongeBob if he was a person. He’s kind, he’s goofy, he’s optimistic. He sings
like a dream, and does the kind of stunts usually saved for Cirque Du Soleil. He’s the human
embodiment of sunshine. Every time he sings, dances, stretches, and does the iconic laugh, my
anxiety vanishes. When he sings “Simple Sponge” in act one and “Best Day Ever” in act two, I
feel completely happy. When I watch Ethan Slater perform, I am calm, I am elated, I feel like
nothing can bring me down. He’s a singing, dancing antidepressant.
The entire show lifts my spirits and brightens my spirits, but there’s one part of the show that
leaves me uncontrollably crying tears of gratitude, and it happens in the first ten minutes of the
show. Near the end of the jubilant opening number, “Bikini Bottom Day,” the sponge-covered
curtain rises to reveal the town of Bikini Bottom in all its Zinn-designed glory and the entire cast sings a lyric that sums up exactly why this show is so special to me:
I will always vow and pledge allegiance to
This town that I hold dear
For all are welcome here.
“For all are welcome here.” Bikini Bottom is a safe space for kids and adults of all ages, who
want to escape the troubles and heartbreak of the world outside and have the best day ever inside.
I think that’s an absolutely beautiful sentiment.
In the past 7 months, Bikini Bottom became one of two second homes for me this year (the other is down the street and won ten Tonys.) I went at least once every week of previews to sort of shadow my old friend, Tony nominated bookwriter Kyle Jarrow, as he tweaked the book and rewrote lines to actually get laughs – as a playwriting major this show inspired me to someday write books for musicals – and I attended my first ever Broadway opening night with a bunch of my best friends. As the school year progressed, I made time every so often to come back to Bikini Bottom when my anxiety peaked. I even brought my girlfriend on Valentine’s Day and got to treat her to a backstage tour.
These next ten weeks are going to be a flood of emotions for all involved with the show. I have
had so many wonderful experiences seeing SpongeBob, and I will treasure them all forever.
SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical ends its run at the Palace Theatre on Sunday, September
16th, 2018. At the time of its closing it will have played a bit over 300 performances. Over the
course of the next few years the Palace will indeed be raised a few stories to make room for more shopping options in Times Square.
(Photo credit is Hayley St. James.)