Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021