The emails arrived from several unconnected sources: a colleague, a neighbor, a couple of readers. You’ve got to see the SpongeBob SquarePants musical on Broadway, they told me. It’s all about management!
So on a recent Saturday night, I purchased a couple of orchestra seats, grabbed a notebook and trundled my nine year-old daughter up to the Palace Theater to see what lessons a relentlessly optimistic fry cook from Bikini Bottom might be able to teach us about leadership.
Let’s be clear: This is not a proper theatrical review of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical”—although I thought the overall production was excellent. The staging, costumes and flamboyant song-and-dance numbers, combined with the pre-curtain shower of beach balls and confetti, made for a splendidly goofy night out.
My problem involves the plot.
The musical’s leadership theme emerges in the opening minutes when Eugene Krabs, the proprietor of the Krusty Krab, tells SpongeBob he’s not management material. He calls him a “sponge boy” who doesn’t seem to absorb much.
As someone who thinks the world has a deeply misguided impression of what extraordinary leaders look like, my hopes ran high. I prepared to jot down all the tactics SpongeBob used to overturn our tired stereotypes.
His opportunity comes when a nearby volcano, Mount Humongous, begins rumbling menacingly, prompting the townsfolk to respond to the crisis in various suboptimal ways. Mrs. Puff goes on a bender, Mr. Krabs frets over his money and Patrick the dimwitted starfish basks in the adulation of a school of sardines that decides to blindly follow him. Sheldon Plankton of the Chum Bucket restaurant—the picture of callous capitalism—devises a scheme to sell more chum burgers by hypnotizing everybody.
The town’s chief authority figure, the mayor, boldly announces a series of indecisive and ineffectual remedies and later, as order deteriorates, lapses into authoritarianism. (There’s a glancing political jab about placing certain Bikini Bottom residents on a “no swim” list.)
Another group, led by Old Man Jenkins, begins searching for a scapegoat, eventually settling on Sandy Cheeks, a Texas-born squirrel-scientist and the town’s only non-native land mammal. “She has lungs,” they reason, “and this is a gill town.”
Apart from the rest, SpongeBob resists fear and pessimism and sets his mind on saving the day. He tracks down Sandy, the newly ostracized squirrel, and nobly convinces her to stay to help him stave off disaster.
Sandy has already studied the volcano and calculated that a small explosive device, dropped inside its mouth before it erupts, would relieve its geothermal pressure and—for reasons not fully explained—transform its molten lava spew into a shower of harmless bubbles. SpongeBob has no idea what she’s talking about, but volunteers to help.
After scaling the volcano with Sandy, our hero uses his small stature and elasticity to set the charge—and the volcano erupts in bubbles, just as Sandy predicted.
The elated townsfolk quickly anoint SpongeBob their savior. Mr. Krabs proudly declares that when faced with a crisis, “all you need is a sponge with some management skills.”
Hang on. Wait a minute. Rewind the tape.
SpongeBob’s can-do spirit was admirable, for sure, but is it fair to say he saved Bikini Bottom from Vesuvian entombment? From where I sat, the real hero was Sandy Cheeks, the astute volcanologist who shrugged off the townsfolk’s discrimination and hatched a plan to rescue them anyhow. Her selfless brilliance had somehow gone wholly unacknowledged.
Well, not wholly…After lionizing SpongeBob, the townsfolk admitted they were wrong about Sandy and wanted her to stay. In other words, she did receive a reward for saving the town. She got to keep her job!
I realize this is a musical about a talking sponge, but seriously—I have no idea what lesson my daughter is supposed to take from this. Do we really expect women to tackle the most difficult work of leadership only to stand by grinning while a man absorbs all the credit?
After the show, my daughter wriggled her way to the front of the scrum at the stage door with her Playbill. Only a handful of cast members came out to greet the fans but my daughter didn’t go home disappointed. In a classic case of life imitating art,
the actor who played Sandy Cheeks, stuck around longer than anyone. She’d signed my daughter’s Playbill and posed for a couple of selfies.
The SpongeBob musical dates back to 2005 when Nickelodeon commissioned
to write the script. But by last December, when the show made its debut on Broadway, evidence of glaring workplace pay disparities, the dearth of female leaders in business and the scourge of sexual harassment were blanketing the news. Oddly enough, the show’s director and creator is a woman,
Maybe it was too late to rewrite the entire script. But why not throw Sandy an acorn or two?
Nickelodeon and the production’s creative team declined to comment.
It’s possible that theatergoers just don’t care about gender equality. In 2009, the musical version of the smash-hit 1980 movie “9 to 5” opened on Broadway. Its heroines were a group of smart, loyal, capable women forced to prop up a crude, incompetent male boss who refused to acknowledge their contributions. It received tepid reviews and closed after five months. The SpongeBob musical’s run will also be shorter than expected; producers Sunday announced the Sept. 16 closing date, a run of less than a year.
The morning after our trip to the Palace Theater, I asked my daughter what she thought the moral of the musical was. “Nobody believed in SpongeBob but in the end he saved the town,” she said.
But wasn’t it Sandy who led the way even after the townspeople turned on her? I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That was kind of weird.”
So why wasn’t Sandy the hero? I asked.
My daughter rolled her eyes. “Dad, the musical is called ‘SpongeBob.’ Of course he’s going to get the credit.”
There it is, folks. You heard it here first. There’s a leadership message in SpongeBob all right. If you want to be hailed as a great manager, find an intelligent, competent, selfless, humble, team-oriented, self-effacing woman to do the difficult work for you. After soaking up your ovation, just squeeze into your boatmobile and skedaddle.
——Mr. Walker, a former reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, is the author of “The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams” (Random House).
Write to Sam Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org