By Christopher Caggiano
This is a non-union production, and that means the actors are being paid a fraction of what they would be getting if the tour were offering performers a union contract.
Anyone who saw the Broadway production of The SpongeBob Musical (when it was called SpongeBob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical) and then during its first national tour would likely notice some differences between the two productions. The tour sets are considerably less lavish, the costumes a bit less detailed. The orchestrations seem a bit scaled down as well.
Such financial concessions are fairly typical for national tours, even expected. But there’s one major difference between a tour like this and other national touring productions. You will not see it mentioned anywhere in the Playbill nor on the tour’s website. And that is that this is a non-union production; the actors are being paid a fraction of what they would be getting if the tour were offering performers a union contract.
The show’s lead producers — which include Sony Music Masterworks and Nickelodeon, which also produces the hit TV show — are clearly licking their wounds after the show’s abbreviated nine-month Broadway run. It’s highly unlikely that 327 performances was enough for investors to make back their reported $18 million dollar investment.
Unfortunately, these deep-pocketed organizations appear to be trying to recoup some of that money off the backs of some eager, talented, but vulnerable young performers. Cast members are reportedly getting (according to an audition notice for the tour) a minimum of $450 a week, $550 if they are principals. That’s $23,400 to $28,600 a year. Compare that to the $1,000 or so a week they’d be making for a first-class union tour, or even $850 they’d make on a third-class tour.
Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union that covers both theatrical performers and stage managers, only controls the contracts for productions that choose to offer their performers Equity contracts, which producers are not required to do. Typically, for a big-name production like SpongeBob, the first national tour would be an Equity production. After the tour hit most of the major cities across the country, the producers would then put together a non-union production to tour some of the smaller cities, often for much shorter runs at each venue. To raise awareness about the difference between Equity and non-Equity productions, the AEA recently launched a campaign called “Ask If It’s Equity.”
As for the show itself, well, it must have seemed like a genius idea to have the songs written by A-list pop stars, including David Bowie, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, and Sarah Bareilles. But the scattershot score is one of the show’s main liabilities. It’s hard enough to craft a cohesive, effective musical score with all of the creators in the same room, let alone while corralling disparate superstar egos from across the globe.
The only genuinely worthwhile song is the opening number, the rollicking “Bikini Bottom Day,” by relative unknown Jonathan Coulton. “Not a Simple Sponge” by Panic! at the Disco runs a distant second. Otherwise, the score proffers a miasma of mediocrity. “No Control” by the late David Bowie and Brian Eno and “Tomorrow Is” by the Flaming Lips are particularly egregious in their utter lack of melody, memorability, or even dramatic effectiveness.
The main reason to see the touring production would be to support the game, talented — and, as aforementioned, underpaid — cast members, particularly Lorenzo Pugliese as SpongeBob and Beau Bradshaw as Patrick Star. The production retains much of director Tina Landau’s inventive staging, particularly for when SpongeBob and his scientist pal Sandy are scaling the summit of an active volcano to save Bikini Bottom from disaster.
The big act 2 production number “I’m Not a Loser” is still a showstopper for everyone’s favorite four-legged curmudgeon Squidward (played here by an endearing Cody Cooley), despite the dreadful song by the otherwise brilliant They Might Be Giants, thanks to Christopher Gattelli’s vibrant staging.
It seems as though the producer’s cynical cash grab is not quite working out. The tour isn’t selling, at least not in Boston. (Closing date on the website is October 27.) The remaining performances are far less than half-full, with acres of empty seats, even for weekend matinees. As of this writing, the producers have cancelled four of the remaining Boston performances. Anyone still interested in seeing the show may want to wait until December when Nickelodeon will be airing a TV adaptation of the material with many of the original cast members.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.