SpongeBob SquarePants’ Ethan Slater: “The Role I Didn’t Know I Was Born to Play”
By Ellis Nassour
June 5, 2018: “My life changed overnight!” exclaims Ethan Slater in understatement. “I’m still pinching myself because I haven’t had time to absorb it all. I owe Tina Landau the world!” Ms. Landau, quite unexpectedly, feels vice versa.” The musical, Slater, in his Broadway debut, and Landau are ending the season with a bang. SpongeBob SquarePants just captured Drama Desk’s Outstanding Musical honors; Slater won Outstanding Actor; and Landau, Outstanding Director, Musical. The trio is also Tony-nominated. In all, the show earned 12 Tony nominations and 11 DD nods.
In 2008, Ethan Slater was a junior at Vassar, studying theater. For a possible summer job, he auditioned for Benvollo in Romeo and Juliet. He got the part. However, the casting director thought he might be just what Landau not only was looking for but also desperately needed. He suggested Slater audition for her long-incubating, still untitled project. Landau had finally secured the rights and was developing a musical she conceived based on marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg’s Nickelodeon network’s TV series and film. It had been in development for 10 years.
Even into its fourth year in development and with a backer’s workshop on the horizon, Landau (Floyd Collins) hadn’t found her SpongeBob. Ethan came in and wowed her without any real idea of what was expected of him. He got the role and dropped out of Romeo and Juliet before rehearsals began. He opted for Broadway-bound musical theater basic training – so incredibly hard at work that he never realized his life was about to change, his career about to soar.
It’s been quite a long journey to Broadway, but no one’s complaining now. Slater points out that Landau, a firm believer that the TV comic romp could be a smash stage musical, “spent three and a half years convincing Nickelodeon her vision was specific and something new and innovative. It’s been beautifully realized beyond anyone’s most avid imagination by a crack creative team.”
After an initial engagement to test the waters at Chicago’s historic Oriental Theatre, the show is heating up Broadway. Ethan is also being saluted with a 2018 Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. He’s also won the Outer Critics’ Award for Best Actor, Musical.
“I went in to audition blind,” recounts Slater. “Tina took a chance on this square-looking kid. She didn’t know if I could do physical comedy, act, sing, or dance! I had a two-page scene and had to come up with physical comedy. I was too nervous to do SpongeBob’s voice. I choose to put on this sweater, but it was rebelling against me. I threw it up and dived through it. I laughed the way I laugh. It was a bold choice.” One that paid off handsomely.
Landau says she saw Ethan was trying to connect with the character and wanted to see him again in two days. He went to work capturing SpongeBob’s unique vocal styling and laugh. Ethan did a routine to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He termed what he did as “goofy dance. It’s passionate, something you care about.” And it worked!
“I realized, pure and simple that Ethan’s a joy generator,” says Landau. “He embodies what is most essential about SpongeBob: His optimism—along with his sense of wonder and play. As we workshopped the show over the next few years, it was Ethan’s instincts—his tastes, off-kilter humor, physicality, devilish glee, and his whole inner spirit—that shaped this role and, in fact, shaped how I imagined the whole production. He was my constant inspiration and guide. He just knew, and just is, SpongeBob.”
Ethan Slater grew up in Washington, attended top-rated Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland and Georgetown Day (High) School, where he got to play Mozart in Amadeus. He attended Vassar, which wasn’t on his list of colleges. “My father visited there with my sister and said I’d love it. I was like, ‘Dad, I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Just apply.’ Did I have a choice? When I was accepted and visited, it absolutely became my first choice. I saw people passionate about what they were studying, whether it was political science or drama. I was drawn to theater that took risks, and where you could take chances and risk failure.”
He performed in or saw productions that were incredibly daring, such as Marc Blitzstein’s classic musical The Craddle Will Rock, which he did freshman year, or weird, such as Woyzeck (by German playwright Georg Bücher), “which was pure sensory overload. Later, I got to see a professional production, but the one at Vassar took way more risks.”
In SpongeBob, Ethan is high-energy and takes risks. He says a lot of his physicality comes from the fact that he was a wrestler in high school and took dance. “To my father’s credit, when I started wrestling, he said, ‘You should take ballet.’ Not something you hear from every father.”
Ethan’s come to think of SpongeBob SquarePants as SpongeBob University, “because of what I had to learn.” In rehearsals, he was taught juggling and acrobatics by circus performers, even worked with a contortionist for six months.” He’s been a part of SpongeBob for six years. Needless to say, there’s a lot of audience anticipation. A great majority come into the Palace Theatre expecting to see a giant foam cut-out of SpongeBob.”
There’s no huge yellow sponge. It’s just Ethan being quirky and sounding like SpongeBob. However, true to the original, he lives in a pineapple, loves his pet snail who meows like a cat, and works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab. “But it’s not a blank stage where you have to imagine the story, nor does it take a long time to understand what you’re seeing. It was crucial to Tina for the set to have a do-it-yourself vibe as opposed to typical Broadway.” David Zinn’s DD-winning and Tony-nominated design is made up of objects supposedly found on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, lots of foil streamers, and a jungle-gym/monkey bars-type contraption that is a volcano.
In the two-and-a-half hour musical, he’s only off stage seven minutes. “Being in a juggernaut such as SpongeBob SquarePants,” Ethan states, “it’s not hard to stay focused. From the second it starts, you’re going, going, going. There’re certain moments when it’s tough, but I don’t have time to think about anything but the job.”
In addition to singing upside down, one of Ethan’s big Act Two moments is when he has weaves in and out of Zinn’s contraption to save the undersea world by climbing into that volcano about to erupt. As he makes his way you might momentarily think he’s been suddenly transported to Cirque du Soleil.
To cope with rigorous new life, Slater literally had to change his. His diet is gluten-free bread and pasta (and not because he’s gluten-intolerant), dairy, tomatoes, pork, and shellfish. Alcohol is taboo. He’s had to “almost totally” give up the comfort food he loves best: pizza. As if what he does onstage isn’t enough, he’s in the gym and dance classes six days a week. He does vocal warm-ups and a 90-minute workout onstage before performances “to get my heart rate pumping.” Exercise includes light tumbling, intimidating fat-blasting workouts, and dynamic stretching.
One of his joys is when he’s onstage but not part of a production number and gets “to witness firsthand the incredible talents of Tony and Olivier-nominee Gavin Lee (Mary Poppins). Lilli Cooper, Danny Skinner, and Wesley Taylor [remember him in The Addams Family?].” They are, respectively the tap-dancing four-legged octopus Squidward Q. Tentacles, the golden-voice squirrel scientist who helps save Bikini Bottom from volcanic destruction, SpongeBob’s best fish pal whose ascendency to King of the Sardines wrecks havoc on their friendship, and tiny Sheldon Plankton, the demented scientist out to destroy Bikini Bottom.
There’s chemistry onstage because Ethan and Skinner have been on the project six years; and he and Cooper have known each other since Vassar. It’s a very tight-knit group, in general, and they work hard and have fun.
Audience response has an effect on the show. “It’s rare when we don’t do the same show twice,” says Ethan. “Audience reactions change the way the show progresses. Matinee audiences are different from evening audiences. Then, there’re some people who want to sing along to our finale number, ‘Best Day Ever.’ Normally actors don’t like to have audience participation, but when the SpongeBob fans join in we love it.”
Ethan has done some Off Broadway, such as last year’s “bad-ass” Baghdaddy, the NY Times Critic’s Pick musical by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo, but nothing prepared him for his Broadway experience. With the Tony Award nominations and the acclaim for his performance, has it been hard to adjust? “I haven’t changed, which is good. Of course, it’s difficult to take it all in, but I am blessed that I have Tina and the cast to help me take this craziness in stride.”
At the luncheon for Tony nominees, Ethan’s great pleasure was getting to meet Nathan Lane (Angels in America, Parts One and Two). “This was special for me because in junior year of high school I co-starred in The Producers. It was a pivotal moment for me. I got the bug, and just couldn’t get rid of it. Nathan is an incredible role model for an actor because he can play any role brilliantly.”
Ethan is very supportive of the production’s effort to get families in the seats. “Sharing theater with family is important. It’s not a kid’s show where we play to the lowest common dominator. This was very important to Tina, and she’s handled it masterfully. It’s a very smooth show, and Tina guided us through some murky waters. There are a lot of first-time theatergoers, especially among young fans of the TV show, but overall our audience is quite eclectic. Many come in skeptical. One woman told me she was dragged by her grandkids, and was dreading the experience, but loved the show so much she’d be coming back.”
“SpongeBob SquarePants,” Ethan says, “for all its screwball fun, laughter, and outrageous and colorful sets and costumes, has strong undercurrents about matters in the world dialogue, such as loyalty; the climate-change issue, where some ignore what’s right in front of them; and the scapegoating of outsiders. Best of all, playing a famous sponge has given me the role I didn’t know I was born to play.”
A Musical with Pedigree
The score is by five-time Grammy winner Yolanda Adams; four-time Grammy winner Aerosmith (Steven Tyler/Joe Perry); Tony nominee Sara Bareilles (Waitress); Rob Hyman; three-time Grammy winner Flaming Lips; Grammy winner Lady Antebellum; Tony, Grammy, and Emmy winner Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots); Oscar, Golden Globe, and 10-time Grammy winner John Legend; Magnetic Zeros; Grammy nominee Panic! At the Disco; Plain White Ts; They Might Be Giants; T.I. Domani and Lil’C; six-time Grammy winner David Bowie: Brian Eno; and Tom Kenny and Andy Paley. Additional music and lyrics are by Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner Tom Kitt and Jonathan Coulton.
Production Photos: Joan Marcus