SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical is a technicolor riot, a joyous extravaganza meant to delight children and adults alike. The show, which comes at you live from the vivid undersea world of Bikini Bottom, is supported by original songs from dozens of blockbuster artists including David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and the Flaming Lips, along with a complex palette of recorded sounds, live Foley noises, and immersive theatre-shaking effects.
Foley artist Mike Dobson and sound designer Walter Trarbach were nominated for a 2018 Tony Award for their groundbreaking sound design work on SpongeBob; I sat down with this dynamic duo to learn how they bring the sounds of this zany undersea world to life.
SpongeBob was in development for a long time. When did you two begin working together?
Walter Trarbach: The first movement workshop was six years ago, where our director Tina Landau assembled all these ingredients she was interested in, and there was no script. There was no songs yet, and she was just interested in these ideas. One of them included Foley sound, and to make that work, the team knew they needed Foley artists and a sound designer who could pull that off. Tina brought me into that workshop, and our producer, Susan, knew Walter, and brought him in.
Mike Dobson: As Walt says, "It's like the best blind date ever." Because that whole thing just relied so much on our relationship to make this work, and so we've had so much fun and become such good friends working on this project over the past six years. We're very hands on and back and forth with everything in the show, as far as the Foley goes; of course he handles the bigger sound design as well. But with all of the little sounds, whether it's an electronic sound or even an acoustic sound like a cowbell that I hit, I'm still reliant on what he's hearing in the house, and him understanding everything that's being heard and giving me feedback and actually knowing everything I'm doing, because it's very, very dense with sound effects.
Trarbach: Before there was even a script for show, we were involved, and that really allowed us to integrate sound very deeply into the show and grow the sound design along with the development of the show at large. I think that's how we were able to achieve such a total sound immersion with SpongeBob.
Sound is really at the forefront in this show. How would you describe its role?
Trarbach: To a large degree, sound is responsible for the emotional connection of the audience to the piece. I mean, it's a musical because it's about music. Now on the SpongeBob musical, we have this cartoon, zany, madcap world we're creating, and the choice was made to add the Foley sound effects to bring the cartoon atmosphere to life on stage. It's just a whole other level of sound density in the show.
Dobson: in our particular show, because of the Foley, it's an extra layer of punctuation, and the phrases of the whole piece. Not necessarily musical phrases, but the pacing of it. I can hit a cowbell at the end of a sentence, and it accents the period in that sentence. There's a very exacting specific approach to this whole show where things change quickly, and the sound helps drive all of that.
Trarbach : Mike is so in tune with the actors and their movements, he can take a cue on the slightest movement of somebody's elbow. He's so rock solid on it that when we have other elements in the show like light cues or video cues that need to be timed very specifically, Mike triggers them through MIDI. Don't you even trigger a scene drop in the show, Mike?
Dobson: Yeah, a few of the scene drops.
How are you balancing recorded sounds and live sounds? Do you develop those together?
Dobson: It is a lot of recorded sounds and a lot of acoustic sounds; it's whatever works correctly for the moment. I have a woodblock that I hit constantly in the show, but we also sampled that woodblock and put it on an electronic button, so I could also use it to trigger a light cue. It's the sound and the light together as an electronic instrument, but it sounds exactly the same as the acoustic one. So sometimes it's that logistical concern. And then, it has to do with this very varied world where there's very realistic rumbles that shake the whole palace theater of this volcano. Then there are these cartoony, non-literal things mixed in.
Walter, how is your approach for managing sound different working with a live Foley artist?
Trarbach: It's just another element. Mike also plays the percussion book on the show. So, I started by just miking up his drum kit. One of the design concepts of the show is that the undersea world of Bikini Bottom is populated with found objects—basically the detritus, things that have fallen to the bottom of the sea. He has all these squeakers. We just put microphones on everything, and when the moment in the show came for him to do something, we just turn that microphone on.
You make it sound so simple.
Trarbach: Actually, the biggest challenge is his physical position, which is directly downstage of the P.A., because he's out of the house. We have to be very conscientious about only having the microphones that he's using open, and for as little time as possible.
Mike, does being in view of the audience impact your decision to play versus trigger sounds?
Dobson: We make those choices based more on the sound we want. I'm no actor, and I have my little moments of interaction with the cast, but it's mostly as though I'm playing some impossible contemporary percussion piece. It's not choreographed as part of SpongeBob. It's just this thing that's happening, this mad scientist world of all these sounds is part of the performance.
How does the sound presentation vary from night to night?
Dobson: It does bend and flex from night to night, and we don't set a lot of the things. For example, when SpongeBob walks around the stage, I make little squeak sounds for his feet. We never talk about, "Oh, it's gonna be ten steps here," or, "I'm gonna cross and stop at exactly this mark." We're in tune enough for him to have that freedom and I can just follow him. Of course, the big stuff is set. But within that, the actors can perform the way that they're feeling, and if there's a laugh or if there's an extra beat, the intention is that with Foley you can move with all of those little tiny adjustments throughout the night.
What would people be surprised to learn about the show?
Trarbach: It’s about Michael: We were worried about him training a sub, but he and his assistant invented a new style of notation. I don't even know how to describe it, but they had to basically score the show and invent a new way to write it out, which I thought was really interesting. Also, for his sound playback, he has a control pad that has 64 buttons, and none of them have labels on them.
Dobson: It's basically a combination of musical notation and script and stage direction, and then notating the Foley. And so sometimes it's all of those things at once, if you need all of that information, and then sometimes it's just Foley plus script, or Foley plus stage direction. But the idea is that it has all of the information in it, but it would be impossible to sit down and read it like a piece of music. It's like it's written in Sanskrit. It takes a musical mind who's willing to look at it and decipher it and crack the code before they even play a note, and then start learning it. I'm lucky that New York is full of incredible musicians, and there are enough people interested to take the time to learn it.