The Unexpected Ways the ’Spongebob’ Sound Designers Bring Bikini Bottom to Life on Stage

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Photo Source: Elyse Roth

The version of Bikini Bottom created on stage in “Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical” is unlike anything on Broadway. Everything, from the set to costumes to the theater, has an authentically homemade feel that adds to the fun and vibrant characters, story, and songs in the show. When it came to the sounds of the live iteration, Sound designer Walter Trarbach and foley artist Mike Dobson (pictured above) worked from the beginning of the development process to blend the music and dialogue while using sound to add another dimension to the story. Dobson and Trarbach managed to blur the line between cartoon and live action by incorporating Spongebob’s squeaky footsteps taken from the show and “found object” sound effects like dog toys and slide whistles with the percussion and more traditional sound elements that are found in theater. Their work earned them a Tony nomination for sound design (one of the show’s 12 nods). Going into Sunday’s awards, at least one thing is certain: in theater right now, it’s hard to have more fun with sound than this duo.

What do you do for “Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical”?
Walter Trarbach:
I’m the sound designer on the show. I’m in charge of all the sound augmentation—making the actors louder, the orchestra microphones, and getting the sound mixed correctly to make sure all the words are heard in the song lyrics and all the backup roles. Julia Sloan mixes the show now. It’s her responsibility on a night that I’m bassist to follow along with the show on stage, to read the script as she goes, and make sure all the correct microphones are on at the correct moment. It’s kind of like flying on an aircraft in World War I—it’s a very frantic, hectic process. In addition, Mike and I are doing the sound effects together. We’ve created all these sound effects that are in the show.
Mike Dobson: I’m the foley artist on the show, so I play live sound effects that are in some way connected to what’s happening on stage. A good example is Spongebob’s squeaky footsteps. Ethan Slater, our Spongebob actor, walks around the stage, and in that instance, I use a computer to trigger the sound. It’s the exact same sound as the cartoon for each step, and I just follow his steps. A lot of the sounds are ones Walter and I made, and some of them are acoustic sounds. There are a lot of percussion sounds—cowbells, whistles, and a classic cartoon percussion palette of sounds— that go throughout the show. I play in the orchestra, too.

Since you were there from the beginning, talk about the development process of the sounds and how your work led to the final product.
MD: Sometimes we were both there in the room working on it and sometimes we weren’t really developing new sounds. There was a lot of time where we were in the rehearsal room with the actors developing the show as it went. Even before there was a script, before there were songs and scenes, there was this element of the sound and the foley being integrated as the show built.
WT: I think it’s a pretty rare and unique thing that we got involved so early. As Mike said, as the show developed, we were there, and as somebody had an idea for a sound, we’d try it. We were really able to integrate the sound effects and the foley pretty deeply into its DNA. A lot of the things that we tried out in the first workshop were just movement-based sound effects and playing with cadence and time and how to score the actor’s movement. A lot of that has really stuck with the show and is still in it today.

How did non-musical objects become part of the sound “roster.”
MD: From early on, Tina Landau pitched the aesthetic of our world as made of these items that have fallen to the bottom of the ocean. There are all these things that are disregarded random trash that has been recycled in the world of bikini bottom. Plankton’s restaurant, The Chum Bucket, is a bucket that still has someone’s glove attached to it that fell. Spongebob’s house is a pineapple. In the design aesthetic, Tina and David Zinn, the set and costume designer, really took that to an extreme. They did all these amazing things with pool noodles and literal garbage and little pieces of plastic that are sewn into the details of the costumes. I remember talking with Tina and Walter early on about what we can add in this world. There is a whole tradition of using found objects as percussion. Adding things like old trash cans and frying pans into the sound palette and also into the mixing with that found object garbage seemed like a very natural way to go.

What happens when something unexpected or different happens on stage or in the theater during the show?
MD: I’m doing adjustments every night, even if the show goes on as normal. Most of the sounds do not have set timing. They’re allowed to take different paths. Squidward (Gavin Lee) will sometimes take 10 more steps to cross the stage than he did the night before. They don’t talk about how many steps he will take, I just know he’s going to cross the stage. If he needs to stop for an extra beat for a kid screaming in the audience or just because he felt that beat in his performance, none of that would be out of the ordinary for me except the screaming, which would be a little jarring. I try to stay connected with the actors and in the performance so whatever they’re adjusting to I’m also aware of it. I’m in the house and I try to stay with them. I want to offer them as much freedom as possible so they aren’t feeling locked into a soundtrack that they have to adjust to. I think the whole purpose of using foley artists instead of being on a track is that freedom. The actors can do their thing and not be thinking in counts. I try to stay as interactive as possible with them.

READ: How a Film Becomes a Broadway Musical

What were some of the challenges that came with designing the sound and sound effects for this show?
MD: I was super inspired by the show. I’m a lifelong fan of the cartoon and a lot of it is inspired by the sensibility and their approach to how sound is used in the show. With Spongebob, it’s not just the sound of his feet but a lot of times he’s punctuated by that same squeak sound as he’s doing anything active. I might be using an acoustic dog toy as a squeak like they might do in the cartoon. I would say that that has colored everything in how we’re doing the sound. One of the reasons it’s so dense with sounds and there are so many opportunities to do fun sounds jokes is because they’ve done tons of that in the cartoon and set that up as part of the world of Spongebob.
WT: Coming up with any of the specific sounds effects was not very difficult; it was more just fun and exciting because we were all having such a great time. We’d say, “hey wouldn’t it be cool if we did this here?” Then, we’d come up with something. We’d try and make people laugh or squeeze something in and see if it worked. It was always exciting, never daunting.

What makes this sound design unique for this show?
WT: It’s the totality of it. In addition to doing a musical with all kinds of musical styles, we also have actors playing instruments on stage and out in the house, interacting with the crowd at times, tap dancing, and more. Plus, on top of that, we have Mike Dobson playing I don’t know how many sound effects in the show. It’s doing a huge musical and a giant play at the same time.
MD: As a performer, it’s overwhelming at first. When we first did run-throughs, it felt impossible, but as we did it more, time slows down and things become easier. I have to remember that as long as I’m very connected to the actors, staying with the show, and integrated, it all feels correct. The moment a sound effect comes out of nowhere and doesn’t connect to anything on stage, everybody goes, “what was that?” The ongoing task is staying precise. It’s been so impressive seeing how all of this can possibly come together and how many people it takes to make it happen for a show with such scope.

How would you describe what you do as different from what sound and foley designers do for projects on screen?
WT: Part of it, from a sound perspective, is that on screen all the timing is locked. You can watch a movie and make something happen at that exact second, whereas when you put it to life on stage and give it legs, all the timing shifts. One of Mike’s great strengths is he pays attention to when every actor does every motion and he can score it like a live performance. I think the variable timing is a huge difference.
MD: Timing is just one of the variables. The volume they’re giving is constantly adjusting what’s happening, the whole band is playing live so their performances are throwing more and more variables into it and so I think with any live performance there’s that feeling of it being alive.
WT: It has to be reactive.
MD: With film foley, it’s mostly going for realism in the sounds, except in cartoons and projects where it’s specifically a different world. Mostly, they’re going for making a sound as real and natural as possible. In that way, it can get similar in the level of connection. If the footsteps don’t look like they’re going along with the feet, then it doesn’t work, no matter what the sound is. I think that aesthetic of performing in the studio and getting it right with the timing is all the same, it’s just the difference between doing it in a studio or live.

How would you suggest for someone to get into sound and foley?
MD: For foley, I came at it because I had this background in percussion and I got into the kind of old vaudeville style drumming and that led me towards more electronics which led me toward sound design. I created this combination of sound and percussion foley, but that’s very specific to me. I think there are a lot of ways someone could arrive at it with other backgrounds that have other useful skills. The best advice I can give is just to do it and remember that a foley artist is an accompanist so you need someone to accompany for it to work. If you have someone—an actor, dancer, juggler, aerialist, or anyone who does something physical—you can get in a room with them and try things. It’s not about what specific sounds you’re making at first; it’s more about how you can connect with the person and if you can get to know their body and be able to work with them. Once you feel that feeling, then you can grow from there.
WT: If you want to get into theatrical design, I would suggest you find people who you like making theater with and make shows with them. When you’re working with people you are comfortable with and you’re enjoying yourself, you’re going to do your best work. I think Mike and I have been able to be so successful because we have a great time working together.

What’s something that surprises people about what you do?
WT: It’s a little bit of a niche thing. There’s a lot of math, science, and art to it so it exists at the intersection of those. You have to be both very technically acute and also very artistically sensitive.
MD: I think people think it’s all more choreographed and set in timing than it is. When Ethan walks across the stage, it’s not like there’s some agreed upon tempo or number of steps. People think he’s listening to a track, there’s someone giving him a cue in his headphones, or Ethan has a magic thing in his shoe that makes the sound. It’s really way more simple; I’m watching and I follow him.

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