SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical works really well, and that’s kind of crazy.
Rather than performing in full, mascot-esque costume, like Disney on Ice, or even using puppetry like The Lion King, the SpongeBob cast appears on stage in limited makeup and surprisingly normal clothes. This scaled-back approach is used throughout the musical, with props and sets patched together from dollar store bric-a-brac, including enough foam pool noodles to unsink the Titanic.
Instead of trying to replicate the look of the beloved cartoon, the producers put all of their efforts into capturing the feel of SpongeBob: The whimsy, the offbeat comedy, the big personalities.
Yeah, SpongeBob drops his iconic yellow rectangle body for plaid and suspenders, Patrick the starfish is only as pink as his Hawaiian shirt makes him, Sandy the aquanaut squirrel now wouldn’t look out of place in a 1970s Blaxploitation film, and Mr. Krabs has traded in his claws for red boxing gloves, but their personalities are intact. The way they interact with one another is spot-on. Nothing feels out of character. They feel like the SpongeBob cast we’ve been watching for over 20 years.
There’s doubt that this is thanks to some extraordinary acting by the performers, but it’s also superb artistic vision by the director and producers. This is a true adaptation.
The animation medium is one that gives creators a lot of freedom. The artists make the rules of the world, and as long as they are consistent, we can suspend our disbelief and enjoy the story. That’s how the late Stephen Hillenburg could make us buy into a show as bizarre as SpongeBob in the first place.
Live performance has different constraints. We must be able to see the emotion of the characters from faces and body language to become invested in the story. We need big expressions and movements so that we understand what’s going on, and, more importantly, so we care what’s going on.
Have you ever seen those big costumed mascot characters move? It doesn’t fit the bill.
Wisely, instead of translating the look of the cartoon 1:1, the team behind the musical translated its essence. They identified what made the characters who they are, what made the world what it is, and the story beats that make episodes of SpongeBob fun romps for all ages. Those were all that was needed to evoke the same feelings in the audience and create something that fits the brand while opening it up to new audiences on Broadway.
When someone’s work impacts you enough to make your own version of it — a logo, a video, a social media post, a story — don’t focus on replicating the whole. Replicate the essence. Figure out what makes it work so well, and copy that.
It’s unlikely that your brand is the same as theirs, even if you are in the same industry, so your content shouldn’t be the same. Make it your own. Identify five key attributes of the work. Like this:
- Bold, high-contrast colors (red and yellow)
- Sans serif font
- Modern at top, vintage at bottom
- Arrows as dividers
- Smaller text for less-necessary information
This list could go on, and your list of things you noticed may be different. The point is, by forcing ourselves to analyze these business cards in this way, we are able to get an understanding of how they work. Then we can use these essential elements to create something new — the same way a musician reorders chords that have been played a billion times before to create a new melody.
What we end with feels like what inspired us, but it’s our unique achievement. And it works for our needs now.
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Acknowledgements go to Chris Do, who laid out the Five Essential Elements exercise so plainly and memorably to me. Visit his YouTube channel, The Futur, for excellent primers on design, marketing, and entrepreneurship.
Seriously, though: Watch the SpongeBob musical. It’s really interesting.