'SpongeBob SquarePants' Musical to Close on Broadway

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Ethan Slater in 'SpongeBob SquarePants'

Despite earning rave reviews and leading this year's field with 12 Tony Award nominations, the $18 million Nickelodeon stage venture has struggled to fill the Palace Theatre since opening in December.

The underwater inhabitants of Bikini Bottom are moving on from Broadway.

Producers on Sunday announced that SpongeBob SquarePants, the imaginative stage musical adapted from the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon, will close after the summer, scheduling its final performance for Sept. 16.

Amateur licensing rights will be made available to the show for school and youth groups starting early next year, with a North American tour planned to kick off in fall 2019.

While the official reason for the closing notice is the previously announced renovation of the Palace Theatre, scheduled to begin mid-September, Broadway pundits have been speculating for months about the future of such a costly show (reportedly capitalized at up to $18.35 million) consistently playing to less than 70 percent of its gross potential.

Directed by Tina Landau with a book by Kyle Jarrow, the show's score is made up of original songs by artists from across the popular music spectrum, including Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants and T.I.

Following a Chicago tryout, it began previews at the Palace Nov. 6 and officially opened Dec. 4, defying critical expectations by earning some of the warmest reviews of the season. While many expected a theme park-style brand extension, the show surprised theatergoers with its wild Dadaist comic sensibility, ingenious design and winning performances, notably from gifted 26-year-old newcomer Ethan Slater, making a terrific Broadway debut in the title role.

The production earned 12 Tony Award nominations including best musical, equaling Mean Girls for the most of any show this season, and while The Band's Visit swept the honors, SpongeBob did score a deserved win for David Zinn's scenic design.

The musical's presence in the Tonys race, and a spot on the CBS telecast for the tap extravaganza "I'm Not a Loser," performed by nominee Gavin Lee as Squidward Q. Tentacles, pumped some fresh momentum into the box office. But the show still had not exceeded 75 percent of its gross potential since the lucrative week between Christmas and New Year's. Cumulative box office currently stands at $27.7 million.

Some observers had been quietly wondering in recent weeks if producing entities Nickelodeon, The Araca Group, Sony Music Masterworks and Kelp on the Road might seek to move the show into a smaller Broadway house. But the presumably high weekly running costs plus the exorbitant expense of relocating appear to have ruled out that option. Announcement of the closing date and incoming summer tourist traffic stand to boost the box-office tally, though profitability remains unlikely.

When it closes, SpongeBob SquarePants will have played 29 previews and 327 regular performances. The complex makeover of the Palace by developers involves elevating the 1,740-seat Times Square theater, which first opened in 1913, above street level to create new retail space underneath.