—Originally published June 11, 2016—
[SPOILER ALERTS: Minor spoilers abound. To avoid the major spoilers, stop reading once the Girls board the L Train]
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls, along with Gwen’s younger sister Hazel, saw the world premiere of Nickelodeon’s “The Spongebob Musical.” Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
Eleanor applauded politely, the sound of her clapping buried under the riotous cheering of the crowd, which ricocheted off the walls of the Oriental Theatre and drowned out the bows music. As each actor bowed, Eleanor glanced over to her right to see Dania’s reaction. Smiling wide, Dania was clapping in time to the music. Having seen “The Spongebob Theme Song” listed in the program, Eleanor could tell that Dania was at peak anticipation for the show’s true finale.
“Pick me up! Pick me up! I can’t see!”
Eleanor turned in the direction of the voice, just in time to see Gwen picking up Hazel, and balancing her as she stood on the armrests of her chair to get a better look at the stage. Hazel also clapped along with the music, with Gwen’s arm secure around her sister’s waist.
Just at that moment, the crowd seemed to jump a decibel or two. Eleanor glanced back to the stage, just in time to see Gavin Lee take his bow. Rather than bowing traditionally, he merely walked to the stage front, and struck the dismissive, frowning gesture commonly associated with Squidward. To her right, Dania cheered louder.
When the final bow came, and Ethan Slater stepped forward to accept the applause for playing the show’s title role, Hazel let out a shrieking shout of delight. Eleanor instinctively put a hand over her ear, laughing at the ridiculous situation. Looking over at Gwen, the two locked eyes and shared a mutual look of dry acceptance. What else could we have expected?, they seemed to ask each other, and the world at large.
“Hold onto my hand, don’t run off.”
Gwen was trying to navigate the packed lobby attempting to exit the theatre, while keeping her sister in tow. Adrift in a sea of faces, Gwen was silently thankful that the average height of the audience was short enough that Hazel wouldn’t get entirely lost.
Outside the theatre, Eleanor and Dania glanced around to see where Gwen was.
“Was she walking ahead of us?” Dania asked.
“I thought she was still in the seat when we left,” Eleanor said. “You know she has her little sister with her.”
“Right, children,” Dania sighed. She observed the crowd around her, which filled the sidewalk and was beginning to flood onto the street. In the windows of the cars moving by, she could see, reflected backwards in the dark glass, the marquee declaring “PRE-BROADWAY WORLD PREMIERE.” Beneath that, “THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL.”
“We’re here,” Gwen gasped, as she and Hazel finally broke through the mob of bodies exiting the theatre.
“Let’s try to cut across to the other side of the street, get away from the crowd,” Dania suggested.
“Not through the street!” Gwen exclaimed. “We’ll get run over!”
“We’ll get run over if we don’t,” Eleanor added.
“Let’s try to cut over this way,” Gwen said, pointing to the left.
Weaving in between bodies, around construction equipment, and past the illuminated windows of the boutiques on West Randolph, the Girls pushed through. Turning north up Dearborn, the girls broke free of the crowd and bolted up the street, towards Lake Street and the L stop. As Dania turned to look back at the crowd behind them, the mass poured out onto the streets, the traffic stopped up with stagnant headlights cutting a pathway through the dark Chicago night. It was beautiful, in its own way.
“Here, up the stairs,” Gwen beckoned. She and Hazel led, with Eleanor and Dania slowly walking up behind them.
Standing on the station platform, Gwen gripped her sister’s hand a little tighter. Eleanor looked around and, finding an open spot on a bench, sat down. Dania walked over.
“Why do you need to sit down?” she asked. “We were just sitting for, like, two and a half hours.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “An exhausting two and a half hours, though.”
“True,” Dania admitted, with a laugh. Gwen and Hazel walked over to where Eleanor was sitting.
“How did you like it, Hazel?” Eleanor asked.
“It was awesome!” Hazel began, loudly. “It was really cool, and it was fun, and I liked it.”
“I knew you would,” Gwen said, her voice as exhausted as her eyes.
“What was your favorite part?” Eleanor continued.
“The…probably the…” Hazel stammered. “I liked the part where Patchy was there.”
“Ah, yes,” Dania remembered. “Right at the beginning, right?”
“Where he…where he kept trying to get into the show, and…and he kept, and they kept trying to kick him out.”
“I liked that part a lot too,” Gwen said.
“And the parts where Patrick was funny!” Hazel added.
“Yeah!” Eleanor said “I thought he was really funny too. And I like his costume a lot.”
“He had some crazy hair, didn’t he?” Gwen asked.
“Yeah!” Hazel said. “It was all pointing up and it was pink, like him, and…”
“What if you had hair like that?” Dania asked. “Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
“What was your favorite part, Gwen?” Dania asked.
Gwen’s eyes grew a size or two. “Oh, Dania,” Gwen responded. “I have so many favorite parts!”
“I’m sure you do,” Dania said, rolling her eyes.
“It was super fun, for certain,” Gwen explained. “I mean, remember, we thought this would be a giant mess when it was announced.”
“Well, we always kind of knew it would at least be fun, right?” Eleanor asked.
Gwen made some kind of non-committal noise, and looked askance.
“Well, Hazel, do you know what my favorite part was?” Dania said, kneeling down to her eye level.
“I like Squidward’s dance the most.”
“Oh my God, Squidward’s dance!” Eleanor exclaimed. “Squidward in general! Just so perfect! So so so perfect!”
“He was funny!” Hazel said. “When he was dancing and his feet were all…”
Hazel attempted some preliminary tap moves on the wooden planks of the station platform.
“Woah!” Eleanor said. “Looking good!”
“I could just tell he would have a tap number,” Gwen said. “You don’t hire Gavin Lee and not give him a tap number. It’d be blasphemy.”
“Well, his costume is actually perfect,” Dania said. “Everyone’s is, really.”
“I liked what they did with the simplicity of the designs,” Gwen said. “I knew they weren’t going to do that ‘theme park mascot’ look for the show, but they actually were pretty restrained. Like, Pearl is the perfect example.”
“Pearl was dope,” Eleanor interjected. “I love that singer’s voice, she was killing it.”
“Emmy Raver-Lampman, she’s fantastic,” Gwen said. “But her costume – didn’t look like a whale at all. Totally didn’t care. You buy it.”
“I though that worked most of the time,” Eleanor said. “There were a couple of times the costumes were a little strange. Like Mr. Krabs?”
“Oh, I thought that was funny. He’s got the giant claws, like the original design,” Dania explained.
“Yeah, I got that it must have been an original design thing. But for me, you know, it just looked a little random.”
“But of course some stuff is going to go over your head if you haven’t seen the TV show,” Gwen said. “The whole concept is a little hard to grasp without knowledge of the original show.”
“Well, not always,” Eleanor said. “I mean, I was able to follow everything fine, with only a few little references going over my head. But the claws – it’s just a random thing to include if you’re not going to make a big deal out of it. Kind of like Plankton.”
“What about Plankton?” Dania asked.
“I liked Plankton!” Hazel said. “He had a good song, and him and his wife were funny.”
“Ah, yes,” Gwen remembered. “Karen, the Computer Wife.”
“Yeah, see, perfect example,” Eleanor said. “I get that Plankton is supposed to be tiny, right? I’ve picked up that much from just passing knowledge. But if I didn’t, then why does this fully-sized dude have this tiny finger puppet of the character? And what’s up with the computer wife?”
“On the show…” Dania began, but Hazel interrupted her.
“Plankton’s wife is the…she’s a computer wife, and they’re always arguing with…with each other.”
“And she usually looks like that screen the actress was wheeling around?” Eleanor asked.
“Yeah,” Hazel answered. “Or she’s bigger and…on the wall and stuff.”
“It changes depending on the episode,” Gwen clarified.
“Okay, so I understood the basics of that,” Eleanor said. “That the woman isn’t literally there with Plankton, who isn’t literally a six-foot-tall figure on stage. But then for some of the other characters…”
“It’s an inconsistency of literal and figurative portrayals,” Gwen summarized.
“Yeah, that,” Eleanor said. “I understood all of it, but it was just a little strange to watch.”
“As it has to be,” Gwen responded. “It’s Spongebob.”
“It was all pretty strange to watch,” Dania added. “I liked most of it.”
“Most of it?” Eleanor asked.
“Yeah. There was stuff that I didn’t really like.”
“Well, most of the songs, for one.”
“I thought the songs were all right,” Gwen said. “Not fantastic or anything, but…”
“I mean, they were fine,” Dania conceded. “But none of them were really fun in that Broadway kind of way. You know? Except for the opening and, like, Squidward’s number.”
“The Panic! At The Disco song was pretty good,” Eleanor suggested.
“Which one was that?”
“‘(Just A) Simple Sponge,’ right?” Gwen asked. “The one with all the sponges.”
“Oh, right. That one, it was pretty good,” Dania admitted.
“Didn’t do a thing for the plot,” Gwen added.
“But it looked really cool!” Dania said.
“Well, that’s basically the show,” Eleanor said. “It looked really cool.”
“There was more to it than that,” Dania said. “I said I liked most of it.”
“Oh, so you must have really loved that one number with Patrick, at the end of Act I, then, right?” Gwen said, baiting.
Dania shot Gwen a look of death that was cause enough for Gwen to laugh out loud.
“Oh, the Patrick Super Star song!” Hazel remembered. “I liked that one a lot!” Hazel began flipping her hands around each other in an attempt to replicate the song’s intricate gesticulating choreo.
“Drove me up the wall,” Dania groaned.
“Me too, really,” Eleanor said, with disdain.
“Like, all the way up. Up into that shiny plastic trim hanging from the rafters.”
“It just seemed so obvious in its symbolism,” Gwen explained. “Like, I had that terrible sense of both, ‘this can’t get more obvious,’ and ‘I know they’ll find a way to make this more obvious.’”
“It’s like, I just…” Dania struggled to put words together. “Like, why that kind of message being thrown into this show? Of all things?”
“I can understand some of the stuff with Sandy, and the distrust of science, and what that’s all an allegory for,” Gwen said. “Like, nothing against including a message in the show. But going this far and this unhidden with it all…”
“I was furious with it,” Eleanor said. “Sent me into the Intermission all wrong.”
“I just think the word ‘guru’ has been forever tarnished, so the moment it showed up in the lyrics I was out. I was just out,” Dania said, throwing her hands up.
“The train is coming!” Hazel shouted out. Sure enough, rolling into the station was their L train.
“Hold my hand.” Gwen stood up and grabbed hold of her sister.
As the train slowed to a crawl, the girls calmly stepped aboard. Finding two seats empty, Dania and Gwen sat down.
“Here, sit with me,” Gwen motioned to her sister. Hazel jumped onto her sister’s lap.
“Oof. You’re getting bigger,” Gwen added.
“Look, look, I almost have the hand thing down. Look!”
Hazel demonstrated her attempt at the dance, twisting her hands around each other.
“Careful,” Gwen said. “Don’t hit yourself in the face. Or me.”
“But anyway,” Dania said, still on the warpath over ‘Super Sea Star Savior,’ “aside from heavy-handed pseudo-religious criticism, the show had a lot of weird issues it was trying to tackle, right? That wasn’t just me?”
“No, it wasn’t just you,” Eleanor added. “There was the heavy slap at government leadership as well. With the mayor?”
“Yeah, that was…just kind of random.”
“Is the character like that on the show, too?”
“There is no mayor on the show,” Gwen explained. “They made her up entirely for this plot point.”
“What?” Eleanor said, in shock.
“Yeah, and they ruined Larry the Lobster,” Dania added, shaking her head. “Don’t know what happened there.”
“It all became an allegory for something else,” Gwen said. “It was all about government bureaucracy, and abuse of power, and totalitarian regimes, and sponges we’re talking about yellow sponges.” She snapped back to reality.
“Plus the really obvious messages about the mob and denial of science,” Eleanor said.
“Sure, but that one at least, a) made sense for the character and situation,” Gwen explained, “since Sandy is actually a fish…er, mammal out of water…or in water. Whatever, you get it.”
“So people distrusting her doesn’t come out of nowhere. And b), that’s the one plot point that they actually try to resolve in the climax, rather than just before the climax happens…” Gwen started off in the middle distance. “…Plankton sideplot.”
“What was that, exactly?” Dania asked. “I could not follow it at all.”
“That’s because it was all through dialogue, so no one remembered it,” Gwen said, shaking her head.
“It’s like, Plankton wants to build this capsule that will save people from the volcano, and to do that he needs to raise money…” Eleanor started to explain.
“No, wait, I though the mayor needed the money,” Dania clarified.
“Right, right, the mayor needs the money to buy the capsule from Plankton, so he’ll be rich, but in order to do that they need to raise the money…”
“With the benefit concert, which is why Squidward is performing…” Dania continued.
“Which is how they fit in that random Aerosmith song into the plot,” Gwen dryly concluded.
“Which I did not understand a single lyric of, by the way,” Eleanor stated.
“Not that it mattered, really,” Dania pointed out. “That song was entirely about looking cool.”
“But it’s all such a linear ‘everything happens because of precisely one other thing’ plot, that I had to trace everything back to the start in order to understand what was happening in the end because it entirely didn’t connect,” Gwen complained. “When Plankton does the “I’m going to comically state my evil plan loudly out of frustration and thus give it away” in the last scene, I had legitimately forgotten what the plan was.”
“Me too!” Dania said. “Like, how Plankton fit into the plot had nothing to do with anything. It didn’t even…they didn’t even mention the Krabby Patty formula, did they?”
“I don’t think they did!” Gwen said, “and they only mentioned the Krusty Krab in passing, without any scenes taking place there. Kind of a notable omission.”
“I’m going to assume that’s a big part of the original show,” Eleanor shrugged.
“Pretty big,” Dania said. “But I’m glad they made up with it by using Sandy a lot more.”
“And Lilli Cooper is great for the role,” Gwen said. “She’s done stuff on Broadway, A.C.T., Atlantic. She can belt her face off. She’s basically the best part of the show.”
“Except Spongebob, obviously!” Hazel added.
“Right, right, except Spongebob,” Gwen admitted. “Ethan Slater is the best person for that role.”
“And his arms are jacked,” Dania pointed out.
“Well, he has to do all that climbing in the final scene,” Eleanor said.
“While still singing!” Dania exclaimed. “He’s a superman!”
“All the scenes between Sandy and Spongebob were easily the best parts of the show,” Gwen said. “Save for the Squidward number.”
“And good on the show to feature a female scientist of color as a central character,” Dania said. “Even if she’s technically a squirrel.”
“Oh, but that discrimination of ‘blame the squirrel’ had some really obvious parallels, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah it did.”
“So did Patchy and his “pirate discrimination,’” Eleanor reminded them.
“Uuuuuugh.” Dania said, slumping down in her seat.
“The pirates were super funny!” Hazel said. “I like their song that they sang after the intermission. It was funny.”
“It was a good song, arguably,” Gwen argued.
“It was about one step away from breaking out into a full-on “we have the right to refuse service to pirates” statement,” Dania said.
“Oh, Dania,” Eleanor said, patronizingly. “Don’t you know that it’s truly the white men dressed up as pirates who really have it hard in the world today? Who are really misunderstood?”
Dania shot another deadly look at Eleanor, who returned the look as the sarcasm slowly drained from her eyes.
“You still liked it, right?” Gwen asked Hazel, whose eyes were beginning to droop.
“Yeah, it was great,” Hazel said, the praise breaking into a yawn.
“It’s late for you, sis. We’ve gotta get you home.”
“Overall, though,” Eleanor said, with finality, “I did enjoy seeing it. It’s fun, and loud, and bright…”
“Those LED lights were directly in my face,” Dania said. “You heard me, I actually said “woah” out loud when they came on.”
“I heard,” Eleanor said. “But nothing is a dealbreaker for the show. There are good things, like that one song the TV reporter sings.”
“Perch Perkins?” Gwen responded.
“He didn’t look like the…like the real Perch Perkins,” Hazel said, drowsily.
“I loved the redesigned look for him, though. Really strong design choices.”
“And the actor had a great voice,” Dania added.
“He was pretty entertaining overall,” Eleanor said. “Also, that conductor. So much work to do.”
“They used the conductor a lot in the show,” Gwen remembered. “They were handing stuff to her, and Patchy messed with her, and she did that one action figure bit…”
“Props to her,” Eleanor said, before adding “and her props. She was one of the best performers.”
“And it still felt like Spongebob most of time,” Dania concluded. “Those were the parts I liked, when it felt like the original TV show. Even if it didn’t look the same.”
“It’s the pre-Broadway tryout,” Gwen said. “It’s going to have time to settle, and it’ll get cleaner and better and everything. They’ll take things out, add things in…maybe add that one reference the whole theatre was waiting for with Patrick in the panic scene…”
“I know right?” Dania said. “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, I don’t,” Eleanor said, at a distance.
“I thought…I thought they should…um…” Hazel stumbled to speak.
“They should start it with…with the ‘Are you ready, kids?’”
“Yes!” Dania said, surprised. “I was totally expecting they would! Why didn’t they?”
“Rights?” Gwen suggested. “But, like, Nickelodeon is producing it, so why not include it?”
“Maybe when they go to Broadway they’ll add it. If enough people ask for it.”