By Ellis Nassour
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 asked him to audition for an untitled project director Tina Landau was developing. It was the musical she conceived based on marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg’s Nickelodeon network’s TV series and film SpongeBob SquarePants.
As is often the case in theater, the project had been in development for 10 years. “It took Tina, a firm believer that the TV comic romp could be a stage musical, three and a half years to convince Nickelodeon her vision was specific and something new and innovative,” Ethan reports, “It’s been beautifully realized with a crack creative team.”
But, even into its fourth year and with a backer’s workshop on the horizon, the director still hadn’t found her SpongeBob. Ethan came in and wowed Ms. Landau. He got the title role and dropped out of Romeo and Juliet before rehearsals began. After an initial engagement to test the waters in Chicago, the show is heating up Broadway and nominated for Best Musical—and Ethan is looking at a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. He’s also a recipient of a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut, and just won the Outer Critics’ Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
A BOLD CHOICE
In an understatement, Ethan says, “My life changed overnight! I owe Tina the world! I went in blind. 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. Ms. Landau saw he was trying to connect with the character. He was asked to return two days later, and expected to do the character’s unique vocal styling. 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.”
“What Ethan did worked,” says Ms. Landau. “I realized, pure and simple, he’s a joy generator. He embodies what is most essential about SpongeBob: His optimism—along with his sense of wonder and play. As we workshopped the show over years, it was Ethan’s instincts—his tastes, off-kilter humor, physicality, devilish glee, and his whole inner spirit—that most 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.”
THE YOUNGER YEARS
Ethan Slater grew up in Washington DC, 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 you could fail.”
He performed in and 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 the show, Ethan is high-energy and often taking risks. He says a lot of his physicality comes from the fact that he was a wrestler in high school. “To my father’s credit, when I started wrestling, he said, ‘You really should take ballet.’ Not something you hear from every father.” He’s been taking dance for the last three years.
LEARNING THE ROPES
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.
“It’s not a blank stage where you have to imagine the story,” he explains, “or 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.” The design is made up of objects supposedly found on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
In one of Ethan’s big Act Two moments, he has to climb and weave in and out of a massive, moving monkey bar set to climb into a volcano about to erupt. Truly amazing! 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.”
To cope, he’s literally had to change his life. His diet forbids the comfort food he loves best: pizza. In its place are gluten-free bread and pasta (and not because he’s gluten-intolerant), dairy, tomatoes, pork, shellfish. Alcohol is taboo. He’s in the gym and dance classes six days a week.
Before each performance, he does vocal warm-ups and a 90-minute workout onstage “to get my heart rate pumping.” Exercise includes light tumbling, intimidating fat-blasting workouts, and dynamic stretching.
SpongeBob SquarePants is the recipient of twelve 2018 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, Book, Score, Director, Choreography, Actor Ethan Slater, Featured Actor Gavin Lee, and Sets and Costumes.
Conceived and directed by Tina Landau; Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (also Tony-nominated for My Fair Lady); Sets and costumes by Tony winner David Zinn; Book by Kyle Jarrow; based on the series by Stephen Hillenburg,
The score is by five-time Grammy winner Yolanda Adams; four-time Grammy winners Aerosmith (Steven Tyler/Joe Perry) ; Tony nominee Sara Bareilles (Waitress); Rob Hyman; three-time Grammy winners Flaming Lips; Grammy winners 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 T’s; 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.
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 Gavin Lee, Lily Cooper, Danny Skinner, and Wesley Taylor.” There’s chemistry and friendship among his co-stars.
Audience response has an effect on the show, too. “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.”
He’s 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 denominator. 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.”