Irreverence, Heart, and the Brightly Colored Costumes of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical!

By Joe Kucharski - August 29, 2018

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical has made a huge splash on Broadway, winning over the hearts of fans and critics alike. So much of the wonderful charm of the production comes from the over-the-top, avant garde, and playful visuals of the sets and costumes that build a visual landscape elevated far beyond the world of a children’s cartoon, yet perfectly evocative of the spirit of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants. Bringing this world to life on-stage is David Zinn, the acclaimed scenic and costume designer, who earned a Tony Award for the show’s Scenic Design and Tony Award Nomination for the Costume Design. We caught up with Zinn to take a closer look at the design and creation of this wonderful underwater costume world!

The Company of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS © Joan Marcus, 2017

 

Tyranny of Style: Can you start by giving us an overview to your approach with designing the costumes for SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical?

David Zinn: “Absolutely! The ‘brief’ from Tina (Landau, director) and Nickelodeon from the beginning was that we find a way to capture the SPIRIT of the show, without literally recreating it, which was an enormously freeing place to start. It was also the subject of our first ‘workshop,’ now about 7 years ago I think, which was just what is BIKINI BOTTOM? How does a cartoon world manifest in 3D?  All the inhabitants of the show (minus Sandy) are sea creatures. What’s fun in the cartoon is that it’s like a fish wearing a polo shirt, or a lobster wearing surf jams. That contrast is surreal and fun. Since we’re starting with PEOPLE and not sea creatures, we had to come at it differently. If it was just a lot of people wearing polo shirts and surf jams it would look like we were doing, maybe,You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Danny Skinner as Patrick Star and Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants© Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

So, how do you capture the graphic-ness and color of a cartoon, the spirit of fun, the sense of mischief and collision, surrealism and contrast when you’re starting from an inherently different place? That was the mission from the beginning. We also had to capture what was human and identifiable among our ‘main’ characters so that our audience would be excited to watch their journey unfold over two and a half hours, as opposed to the 11-minute episodes of the SpongeBob cartoon. The wackiness of the shapes, colors and textures, etc. could kind of spiral out from those core characters. We could take more license as we moved into the surrounding people of Bikini Bottom, as well as their environment since I am also the set designer.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

T/S: This is such a different version than what we usually get from an animated studio- no foam suits with big heads. For the most part, you have given us humans in human clothing, but with really creative silhouettes and nods to the characters. Can you talk about how this approach came together?

DZ: “Nickelodeon and Tina were very clear from the beginning that they weren’t interested in the big foam shape show, So, from day one the investigation was about how can they move and look like the characters we recognize- what does that mean to move from 2D to 3D? And what tools do we need? Nickelodeon has been awesome- their notes always have been about being less literal, being weirder. Which is very, very cool, and very true to the spirit of the show.

 SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

That first year of workshops we tried a million approaches to our main characters—is SpongeBob yellow? Does his hair have to be a square? Does he wear shorts? Pants? Do they have to be square? Does he need a mask? Does he need a see-thru mask? Can he have a yellow sailor hat instead of a square head? Does Squidward have to be bald? Does he have to be green? Does Sandy need a helmet? Can Patrick have hands? Does he need a pointy head? We made versions of all of these things and just kept looking and trying to sense what felt ‘right’.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

At the same time, we started building inspiration for the rest of the world which we felt wanted to be a combo of a rock concert, a big party, an East Village drag show at 2am, a chaotic installation, and Bikni Bottom. We also felt like it wanted to celebrate both the hand-made/down-and-dirty ‘DIY’ kind of theater magic as well as the more ‘spectacular’ tools of a Broadway musical that Tina and I both love. Tina and I come from the same world. We were both downtown theater makers whose tastes and loves were really born of that scene. In addition, we were both big time musical nerds. This felt like a great project to smash those things together.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

Many of the choices from that first workshop have stayed with us all the way through, to a remarkable degree. Over the course of the next few years we honed these and started thinking more concretely about color and shapes, about this idea of an ensemble that would be forever morphing and shifting and participating in how the story was told. We had the luxury to start to develop and make, even in a simple way, some of the other characters- again, testing out for ourselves and for a small audience how much those characters needed to look like the cartoon, and how much they could be our own thing."

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

T/S: Can you tell us about some of the specific individual inspiration, research, approach, and a bit of an overview of the finished main looks for the main characters? 

DZ: “For the main characters, our jumping-off point was how they looked in the cartoon. These are characters that a lot of people know and relate to. We wanted the audience to recognize them and feel like we were honoring their spirit.”

SpongeBob

“Ethan’s really been on the biggest journey of evolution, which I guess makes sense for the main character of a musical. Even after Chicago, where I feel like we more-or-less stripped him down to his human essence, it felt like we could take more of the ‘costume’ feeling away from him. SpongeBob is so unpretentious, so sweetly transparent, that it just felt like we didn’t want to be aware of ANYTHING costume-y on him. We heightened his colors to match the graphicness of the TV show. So, the yellow is pretty yellow, but otherwise we just took everything else away from him.

Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants © Joan Marcus, 2017

We made a wig (the great Charles LaPointe did all the wigs and hair) that felt like Ethan in shape and color. We give him a yellow gingham (squares!) shirt and plaid (squares!) pants. I also gave him Fluevog boots because they seemed like an off-center but groovy choice, and also had the shape/vibe of his cartoon shoes. In Chicago, Ethan had shorts on but given the crazy amount of climbing and acrobatics he does in the show we gave him pants that have a lot of stretch in them. They moved with him more and were more protective.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

Patrick

“I had the idea about the pink Hawaiian shirt pretty early. We kept looking at other things but that just kept feeling right. At one point he had a pink Baja hoodie too. He just seemed like an awesome stoner dude.”

Danny Skinner as Patrick Star (center) and company © Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

Sandy

“We tried a spacesuit on her but it didn’t seem very fun. Early on it seemed clear that we could do her helmet shape with an afro that felt very right and very cool for her. I thought a jumpsuit would be cooler than a space-suit, and easier for her to move around in. I looked again to the past- at a lot of Couregge, cool, space-y, vintagey/modern. The jumpsuit is loosely based on a vintage Gaultier romper.”

Danny Skinner as Patrick Star, Ethan Slater as SpongeBob SquarePants and Lilli Cooper as Sandy Cheeks © Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

Plankton

“Plankton has been the hardest, because of his scale and because- well, he has one eye. So, we tried lots of different eye things and shape things but it just seemed like it was important that he look more like the criminal mastermind and less like a cute cartoon character. He also carries around a toy plankton (like, a purchasable toy Plankton) that people talk to when they’re talking to him (sort of like a DIY Lion King). There was a workshop where he was in a suit, but that seemed a little boring, so we kept going back to the kind of ‘Dr. Evil’ idea (eye patch! Nehru jacket!).

Wesley Taylor as Sheldon Plankton (center) and company © Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

At the same time, as I was developing Karen (his computer wife, who both is a contraption like in the cartoon that is pushed around and voiced by another actor) who I thought should look like a sexy 1960s Star Trek robot lady (vintage influences are legion here). That also started me thinking about Sammy Davis Jr. as a Nehru-wearing influence for Plankton. So, that’s how we found him. We were also imagining him bald, but the actor didn’t want to shave his head. We ended up with a Karl Lagerfeld-y vibe for him as well, which gave it some fun and some fantasy. If you look closely the wig does have 2 ponytails ala Plankton’s antennae. For a long time, I wanted plankton to look like Vanilla Ice (he has a rap number penned by T.I.) and though we jettisoned that we did give him four Vanilla Ice-like backup dancers, which was a particular pleasure.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

Squidward

“His legs were an early-workshop creation- he wears two “back” legs that connect to his heels and waist in a pretty simple manner. Otherwise, I just thought he’s kind of like a 1970s sour-puss, who dreams of Liberace and Busby Berkeley. For a long time, I thought he should look like Lawrence Welk (bubbles! cheesy dance numbers!) but that kind of morphed into a 1970s take on 1950s movie musicals for his big tap number. I think what’s important is that Squidward has the fantasies of, like, a 68-year-old." 

The Company of SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS © Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

Pearl

“She's a cheerleader and she's cool. Also, she's a WHALE and her father is a crab, so we wanted to really exaggerate her height and the ungainliness of being a whale when everyone is so much smaller than you. We gave her really great custom platform sneakers- sort of Spice Girls meets Frankenstein, we designed some custom Electric Skates (her favorite band) merch for her to wear, and gave her a whale-ish pompadour.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

Mr. Krabs 

“The key to a crab is his claws, which in our case are just big red boxing gloves. It seemed like a fun and (good) stupid way to highlight the one physical thing about him which made him different from the other creatures. It also turns out that finding a good purple fabric is TOUGH, so we custom printed his pants onto neoprene- it's just a purple texture, but they have a great body that both move with the actor while maintaining their slightly exaggerated shape.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

 

T/S: Can you talk to us about the really avant garde shapes, materials, and textures on the ensemble/supporting cast? 

DZ: “They’re a combo of things that Tina and I love, and that felt right for our ‘vibe” - The Flaming Lips, avant garde fashion, Laugh-In, Leigh Bowery, Star Trek, the B-52’s, backyard tiki parties, Busby Berkeley. Sophisticated and “stupid” (a word I use in a good way). Because big-flat shapes aren’t so much fun on stage, I looked to find ways to enliven those with texture and surprising, transformational shapes. There’s a lot of Comme des Garçons in there, Chanel, Walter Van Beirendonck, The Cockettes- all people who have tackled the idea of exaggerated shapes and colors in gorgeous and provoking ways.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

T/S: Can you talk us through one of the big show numbers and the costumes you designed for it?

DZ: “I mean- I love Squidward’s big number. I love Busby Berkeley, I love Las Vegas. I love Liberace. I loved that Squidward’s fantasy (the tap number is fully realized but at the end is only in his head) would be both cheesy, and vintage, and fabulous. So, while he gets a sparkly tailcoat/vest/dickie ala Liberace-meets-A Chorus Line, he is surrounded by 12 sea anemones whose headpieces, gloves, and shoes are ALL sea anemones (each have eyes and feathery tops). It’s a big, fun, SUPER stupid glittery fantasy and it’s a blast. It’s also a quick-change NIGHTMARE, so I’m grateful, as always to the shop (Eric Winterling), my awesome associate and assitant (Sarah Laux and Patrick Johnson), and my amazing wardrobe wizards (led by Moira MacGregor Conrad) who make it possible.

Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles (center) and company © Joan Marcus, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

I mean, I also got to do a big pirate number which I love for its incongruence—its such a different vocabulary all-of-a-sudden. And I got to make up cult sea-star worshippers. That was fun. 

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

I will also say that I’m really proud of what the opening number became by the time we got to Broadway. It’s such a celebration of the world you’re about to enter, and just a parade of color and textures and shapes and scale. Part of the process was literally looking at photos of the opening in Chicago and figuring where is there open space and how can we fill it with fabulousness. That’s how our mermaid and our octopus got up in the air—it was the last place we hadn’t filled with creatures welcoming you to Bikini Bottom.  It’s a rare and treasured privilege to be tasked with filling the empty space with costumes.”

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. Costume Design by David Zinn

Make sure to check out SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical currently running at the Palace Theatre in New York City. With just the right amount of irreverence, heart, and brightly colored sets & costumes, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical finally answers the age-old question- “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”

 

Explore the costumes of SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical up-close, with a tour by costume designer David Zinn himself:

 

Huge thanks to David Zinn for the wonderful insights and images he has shared!