When Ethan Slater was invited to audition for the lead in a secret project then known as “The Untitled Tina Landau Project,” the now-25-year-old actor was still a sophomore at Vassar College, where he was performing in a school production of Romeo & Juliet.
The musical, written by Kyle Jarrow and directed by Landau with original music by popular artists like John Legend and Lady Antebellum, tells a new story about the nearly 20-year-old Nickelodeon cartoon character and the townspeople of Bikini Bottom, which is threatened by a volcano eruption. SpongeBob (Slater, who has since graduated from Vassar and is making his Broadway debut) and his friends Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) and Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper) set out to stop a volcano from destroying their homes.
While adapted from a popular kids series, the production, it should be pointed out, is far from a commercialized show for its core demographic. “The first thing I say [to people] is that it's going to surprise you,” Slater says. When audiences walk into the theater, not only are they immediately transported to a tropical paradise, but the massive, moving sets designed by David Zinn (including two Rube Goldberg-like contraptions on either side of the stage) and oversized props of giant jellyfish and bouncing balls were built to impress. “Julie Taymor took The Lion King and made something completely new, and I think that was Tina's goal -- to be innovative with this character and with this world. I think she succeeded, personally,” Slater adds in praise.
Donning a fitted yellow square-patterned button-down shirt matched with a red tie, suspenders and checkered trousers -- no, there’s no sponge suit here -- Slater embodies SpongeBob through his physicality, body language and, of course, acting. The laugh he projects emulates the character (voiced by Tom Kenny in the series and subsequent films) so well, you’d think the television was on.
It takes the actor 90 minutes to warm up backstage to sustain his stamina throughout his performance, which he likens to a “two-and-a-half-hour CrossFit workout.” Not only does his preparation involve massaging his voice, he also stretches his body because the show requires climbing, contorting and tons of challenging choreography. Slater cut out dairy, sugar and bread from his diet and spent four to five days a week at the gym for six months prior to opening to be able to maneuver in and out of the hoisted jungle gym set 18 feet in the air, attached to a harness while singing upside down. “That’s one of my favorite parts of the show,” he admits, partly because it was his idea and thought it would be funny. "’I don't know if funny's the right word for it, but it would be cool,” Slater recalls Landau saying of his suggestion. “I was like, ‘Great. Why don't we try that?’ And I've been doing it ever since.”
Slater’s also made it his mission throughout the show’s run to “mess up” percussionist Mike Dobson, who is literally a one-man-band Foley artist. He’s set up on stage, in full view, crafting SpongeBob’s signature walking sound in addition to hundreds of other sound effects. “Oh, man, he's going to be so mad, but I got him once. I got him so bad. There’s a moment when I take three steps downstage, and then I hover and take a fourth step. I faked him out with that fourth step and I got him real good.” In six years, Slater says he’s made Dobson flub a cue once, but Dobson claimed backstage after the show that it was Slater who messed up.
It’s all fun and games on stage, because SpongeBob loosely pays homage to Hollywood’s greatest comedians. “In the TV show, it’s there, the Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello when you look at SpongeBob and Patrick,” Slater says. “But the comedy style is Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and everybody loves that.”
But it’s icon Mandy Patinkin who gives Slater his personal inspiration, possibly because he reminds him of his father. “In college, I got to perform a couple of songs from Sunday in the Park With George, and I think the reason that I chose those numbers is because I've been watching videos of Mandy Patinkin singing it on YouTube since I was a kid. And ‘Finishing the Hat’ has always been a dream of mine to sing.”
Now, nominated for his first Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Slater is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s now part of the Tony legacy -- going from watching past ceremonies on TV to being in the room. “It’s pretty unbelievable,” he says.
His next dream, believe it or not, is a serious play. Slater concludes: “That's what I really focused on in school -- straight drama -- and I would love to get an opportunity to do that.”
The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.