On Sept. 16, 2018, Ethan Slater braced himself for the final performance of "SpongeBob SquarePants." The Nickelodeon musical had been open on Broadway for nine months, and it received generally positive reviews and 12 Tony Award nominations. But the Palace Theatre was closing for multiyear renovations, forcing the undersea spectacle to shutter as well.
That last audience was filled with devout fans, some who had seen the show dozens of times. Families had flown in from out of town, millennials came dressed in cartoon costumes. And before anything had really begun, they were all on their feet and cheering loudly at the entry of foley artist Mike Dobson, who performed hundreds of sound effects that animated the actors onstage.
Backstage, Slater -- who portrays the porous, persistently optimistic sponge -- was moved to tears.
"Even though he wasn't visible on the Broadway stage, the foley was such a quintessential part of the show," he recalled of Dobson, who was in the orchestra pit. "It was this perfect moment when I realized that even though we were closing, our audience had understood what we were doing. It ended up being like that for the whole show, full of these beautiful little realizations that this was the last time we were gonna perform this."
Or so he thought. Last month, the cast and creative team reunited for "The SpongeBob Musical: Live on Stage!" which will simulcast at 7 p.m. Saturday across Nickelodeon, TeenNick and Nicktoons. The airing is part of the yearlong celebration of the 20th anniversary of "SpongeBob SquarePants," created by the late Stephen Hillenburg.
"This is something that deserves a wider audience, so we absolutely wanted to film it in whatever way we could," said Rob Bagshaw, Nickelodeon's executive vice president of unscripted and live events. "'SpongeBob' has always been at the forefront of many of our tentpole characters, and the fact that it's an existing title made it obvious for our first project. We love the results, and we'd like to do more."
Like the many entries into the "live musical event" space -- whether airing on network television or broadcast to movie theaters through National Theatre Live -- the upcoming "SpongeBob Musical" aims to make theater accessible to a new audience.
"Even though our show always had affordable options when it was on Broadway, if you live in Kansas, a $35 ticket to the show also comes with a round-trip plane ticket," Slater said. "As a young person who didn't grow up in New York, this would've meant a lot to me. I hope this will inspire a new generation of theatergoers, who aren't close to Broadway, to check out regional productions or tours."
Nickelodeon's presentation less resembles the offerings from NBC, Fox and ABC than those from PBS, Netflix and BroadwayHD. "The SpongeBob Musical" will be captured and edited for an airing rather than broadcast live. Most of these pretaped titles do not air -- or, sometimes, are not even announced -- until after the original stage show has closed, possibly as a cautionary move to not cannibalize ticket sales.
Recently, that unofficial rule was broken when Netflix announced that Mike Birbiglia's one-man Broadway show "The New One" would premiere on the streaming platform in a month's time. Netflix made the announcement just before the tour began its month-long stop at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. CTG producing director Douglas C. Baker didn't think the Netflix news negatively affected ticket sales.