So, for the two of you I still haven’t told, my son Danny is in a “bound-for-Broadway” musical – “The SpongeBob Musical” – that officially opened on Father’s Day at the Oriental Theater in Chicago to rave reviews. Mary Lynn and I were there for the Opening and we watched with real pride and sheer amazement as our “little” boy Danny danced, sang, flew – yes, that’s right, I said flew – and acted his heart out as “Patrick Star” – SpongeBob’s dimwitted but “charming” best friend. We laughed. We cried. We pinched ourselves to make sure that this was really happening.
Mary Lynn and I took Danny to Broadway when he was in Middle School to see Phantom of the Opera. When he told us after the show that he thought that this was what he wanted to be and do, we were pretty sure that this was probably something that lots of kids say when they are walking out of their first Broadway show. But there was a look in his eye that was convincing. And now for that dream to have become a reality, and in such a powerful way, is still hard for us to fathom.
Mary Lynn and I always thought that Danny was funny, creative and talented, but we’re his parents. It’s our job and our joy to believe in him. But now to hear a theater clap and cheer his performance, and to watch as people – especially eager wide-eyed children – stop him outside the stage door of the theater and on the street to ask him for his autograph, well, this is not something that we could have ever imagined.
Danny has been working on this project quietly and slowly for the past four years. He was hired as the workshop actor to help develop the role of Patrick Star shortly after graduating from theater school at Syracuse University, and he has been working on and off for the last four years to help bring this character to life with an amazing team of writers, designers, choreographers, musicians and fellow actors. For those of you who may may be interested, you can read more about this long behind-the-scenes journey at – http://www.playbill.com/article/get-to-know-the-cast-of-the-spongebob-musical
For those who you who don’t know, SpongeBob Squarepants is a cartoon, the beast of the Nickelodeon lineup. When this project began, I thought that it would make for an amusing show – a diversion – and it certainly is that. In fact, it’s laugh out loud funny, and consistently so. What I wasn’t counting on was it being “significant.” It’s SpongeBob Squarepants after all! Boy howdy was I wrong. While it may not be Shakespeare or Sophocles, SpongeBob has nevertheless got something. The mantra repeated in all of the promotional videos for the show that I’ve seen begin with Tina Landau, the show’s co-conceiver and director, saying, “I think the world needs a SpongeBob Musical!” That’s a funny thing to say about a cartoon, isn’t it? But she was serious, and now I get it.
On the flight up to Chicago last Friday evening I was reading Os Guinness’ 2015 book Fool’s Talk (IVP). It opens with a quote from William Hazlitt –
Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps;
for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference
between what things are, and what they ought to be.
In the fourth chapter – “The Way of the Third Fool” – Os Guinness probed this suggestion of a theology of laughter that was the perfect theological set-up for the show that Mary Lynn and I saw and enjoyed on Sunday evening. At a lecture I attended a few years ago I heard Os Guinness say that every social movement and any artistic expression that trended toward utopianism – toward the creation of a more just, compassionate, peaceful and free world – ought to be warmly embraced by people of Christian faith. This deep desire that is hardwired into the human soul both individually and collectively is one of the big itches that the Gospel scratches. Rather than dismissing utopianism as naïve, Os Guinness urges us to view it as the “echo of Eden” in the human heart that causes us all to ache for “the best day ever.” And laughter is its midwife. Os wrote –
There is always a vital tension between what is immediate and what is ultimate. The immediate, which is formed by our present circumstances and our short-term prospects, may sometime be horrific. We may be suffering a job loss, a health crisis, a public scandal, the death of a child or close friend, a Job-like combination of disasters. But however bad the immediate, the ultimate is always hopeful, and in the tension between the immediate and the ultimate lies the possibility of this resilience of faith. (71)
Humor, Os Guinness argues, is one of the gifts that heaven gives us to help balance the miseries of life. Humor can be hopeful, it “turns on the grotesque mismatch between the bleakness of the immediate prospects and the brightness of their ultimate prospects” (72). Os Guinness quoted the 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr – “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer” (74). “It’s genius,” Os Guinness suggests, “lies in its capacity to open up a vantage point from which the world looks different” (75). And this is what the SpongeBob Musical does so brilliantly – through silliness and laughter it opens up a vantage point that allows us to look at the world differently.
On Sunday, June 12th, there was a preview of the show in Chicago. That was the day we all woke up to the news of the Orlando shooting. By the time that the curtains opened in Chicago that afternoon, the full magnitude of the horror that had unfolded in Florida in the middle of the night was just beginning to dawn on us all. And there were these gifted actors on stage, putting on a show that’s designed to make people laugh when their hearts, the hearts of those who were in the audience, and the hearts of the whole nation were breaking. As the Psalmist so poignantly asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (137:4)
When the show was over, one of Danny’s cast mates tweeted that on such a sad and confusing day, it was only the performance of such a funny and hopeful show that gave him any help to make sense of the world and find any comfort in the moment. And that’s why the reason why the world needs a SpongeBob Musical right now.
Here’s how Os Guinness explains it –
Both tragedy and comedy turn on the deep contradiction and discrepancies between the world as it is and the world as we humans wish that it would be… But whereas tragedy only reminds us of the iron bars of the prison of reality from which not one of us can ever escape, comedy shows us a way to break out. In comedy the pratfall and the setback are not the end, and in the Christian faith even death, the ultimate setback, is not the end. Because of the cross and the resurrection there is always a way out. Which means of course that when the contradictions are subverted and reality is turned right way up, the outcome can be gratitude, joy and hope, rather than pity and fear. Needless to say, the dynamic of the resurrection and a God who cannot be buried for long is the dynamic of a child’s jack-in-the-box writ large in golden cosmic letters. (78)
And so, as a parent I am incredibly proud of my son’s accomplishment, and I can only hope that this project that he’s a part of will soon realize its full promise on a Broadway stage where it will reach an even bigger audience and have an ever greater impact. But it is as a pastor that I am deeply grateful that the good work that my son has given himself to is full of such wonderful humor and hope. Because it lives at the intersection of the immediate and the ultimate, on the corner of the world as it is and the world as we all know somewhere deep inside that it’s supposed to be, the world needs a SpongeBob Musical. DBS +