Christopher Gattelli on Choreographing SpongeBob SquarePants: "It's Not Your Typical Broadway Musical"
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.
Photo by Joan Marcus
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."
Photo by Joan Marcus
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."
Photo by Joan Marcus
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.