Christopher Gattelli describes his latest cast as "unicorns," because he can't believe they exist. "It blows my mind, what they can do," he says. "They can do everything." They have to. Their characters belong to no species generally known to dance on Broadway—a crab, a squirrel, a starfish, a snail and, you guessed it, a sponge.
And the songs in the musical version of Nickelodeon's popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants, which opens this month at the Palace Theatre, are by 16 different composers, ranging from John Legend to Panic! At the Disco, from Lady Antebellum to T.I., with offerings along the way from the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Steven Tyler and The Flaming Lips. So the choreography runs the gamut as well—tap, hip-hop, jazz, contemporary, the works. The dancing, Gattelli says, "is all over the place."
The TV series, still going strong after 18 years and two movies, is all over the place, too, as it tracks the goofy citizens of Bikini Bottom, an underwater city in the Pacific. It's meant for children 6 to 11, but it's loved by adults for its face-palm worthy jokes and fun-house atmosphere, rendered in the stage version by an immersive array of flotsam and jetsam curated by set designer David Zinn.
Working within it, Gattelli notes, "is like being inside a piñata." The explosive analogy is apt—the musical's plot, conceived by director Tina Landau, puts Bikini Bottom in imminent risk of death by volcano.
Landau, an iconoclastic writer/director well-known in non-commercial theater circles, specializes in visual, theatrical theater. She has said she's not interested in staging the everyday reality you usually see in movies and television—and she's the reason Gattelli joined SpongeBob.
"I think her mind is incredible," he says, "and I was curious about how she was going to do this." With a Tony for Newsies and nominations for the Lincoln Center revivals of South Pacific and The King and I, Gattelli has built a career on dances for genuine characters—his most recent Broadway musical was the fact-based War Paint.
One meeting with Landau was all it took to persuade him to choreograph on the happy-go-lucky sponge he already knew from watching TV with his nieces and nephews, because her vision resembled nothing he'd ever worked on, and the variety of music would allow him "to flex every single choreographic muscle."
His tap chops got a particularly strenuous workout. The number contributed by They Might Be Giants, "I'm Not a Loser," is a tap extravaganza for a squid and a chorus line of 12 portraying 50 sea anemones. Playing Squidward Tentacles, SpongeBob's chronically cranky neighbor, is Gavin Lee, whose expert tapping gave Mary Poppins a showstopping number in 2006. Here, his costume gives him extra legs and arms to dance with, and, Gattelli says, "He's off the charts."
A promotional clip before the show's tryout run last year in Chicago offered a glimpse of another Gattelli muscle—not to mention the bicycle-riding skills of the dancers. Asked about choreographing this bit, he says, "Oh, we ended up not using it—we found a better solution for that moment."
He explains that "I could do more with them physically, I could dance them more, by taking them off the bikes." The bicycles, and their elimination, illustrate Landau's process, Gattelli says. "It's so open and so collaborative—there's never a 'no.' You're encouraged to try anything. Even the wildest idea gets a hearing."
And many of the wild ideas stay. SpongeBob SquarePants, he says, "is a carnival. It's a rock concert. It's a vaudeville. You don't know what's gonna happen next. It's not your typical Broadway musical."