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SpongeBob SquarePants, a long-running Nickelodeon cartoon about a sea sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple is an unlikely candidate for a hit musical. But since the $20 million SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical hit the stage in 2016, it’s been called a “ginormous giggle” (New York Times) and “eye-popping” (Hollywood Reporter). In May 2018, it scooped 12 Tony Award nominations, including for a crew member rarely given a curtain call.
Walter Trarbach (CFA’02) is SpongeBob’s sound designer, responsible for virtually everything heard in the theatrical production. Along with his colleague Mike Dobson—the Foley designer who generates the musical’s everyday sounds, such as footsteps—Trarbach was honored for Best Sound Design for a Musical, his first Tony nomination.
The complicated, nuanced work of theatrical sound designers involves creating sound
effects and sonic atmospheres that aid in the dramatic presentation of the performance, and the audience’s emotional connection with it. They advise on how the performers and orchestra can best be heard, including acoustic adjustments to the theater and set, or the configuration of radio and float mics for the performers. Asked to describe his style, Trarbach says simply, “If I can’t hear something, I make it louder. If I think it’s too loud, I turn it down.”
Trarbach, who has worked on such shows as the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and 2015’s Doctor Zhivago, has been involved with SpongeBob for six years. He was approached by Susan Vargo, the musical’s producer and the head of live entertainment for Nickelodeon. They’d met when he was a student at BU. He hadn’t seen a single episode of the TV show, and when they started work-shopping the musical, there wasn’t even a script. Over the next several years, more workshops took place, and he and Dobson continued to try out new sounds with the actors. “We got to grow the sound design of the show right along with its overall development,” Trarbach says, adding that that’s rare for a Broadway musical. “This allowed us to integrate sound design into every facet of the production.”
Every show, he says, has its own set of demands. “Sometimes the scenery will be in the way of ideal speaker positions or the costume design of a musical will include hats over an actor’s microphone, rendering it ineffective.”
The biggest challenge on SpongeBob was the sheer scale of the project, he says. In addition to designing the sound for a huge Broadway musical, Trarbach had to create hundreds of sound effects, including a rumbling volcano, a cowbell that goes off each time a character hits their head during the show, and the little squeak that SpongeBob makes each time he walks, made famous by the Nickelodeon cartoon. The show’s tap-dancing numbers and the fact that all of the actors play instruments onstage posed additional complications.
“In terms of the amount of sound in a show, SpongeBob will likely prove to be the biggest of my career,” he says.