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Meet the Tony Nominees: Ethan Slater of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’

Category General

|by David Sheward |

Tony nominee Ethan Slater dives into the watery world of ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’

Head under the sea to beloved Bikini Bottom in the musical masterfully conceived and directed by Tina Landau. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, SpongeBob SquarePants features original songs from Yolanda Adams, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Sara Bareilles, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco, They Might Be Giants, T.I. and Tom Kitt.  The musical is based on the Nickelodeon animated television series of the same name. Slater, who has been with the show since he was a student at Vassar, makes his Broadway debut as the lovable SpongeBob who, as the song goes, is “not a simple sponge.” 

Ethan Slater at the 2018 Tony Awards Meet the Nominees event (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Ethan Slater at the 2018 Tony Awards Meet the Nominees event (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

Where were you when you heard the news about your Tony nomination? 
Ethan Slater:
I was up at 5:30 in the morning because I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous and I tried to be really cool and just ate breakfast. I made an omelet and I just casually put the Facebook Live Stream in the background on my computer. I was thinking that I would be able to just soak it in. And then I stopped everything, burned all my food and watched the nominations announced.

It was really wild. I was with my fiancée and we had a little mini celebration where we hugged and said, “ahhhhhhh!” And then two seconds later I looked at my phone and had 40 text messages all from my family. So I didn’t have to reach out to them because they were reaching out to me, which was really sweet. It has been a long road with the show. I have been working on it for six years and she and I have been together for just over six years. She has been with me every step of the way. So she knows how much I had put into it and how we’ve gotten to take the little victories. And this this was a pretty big little victory.

How did you prepare to audition for such an iconic cartoon character? 
Ethan Slater:
I was really fortunate to not have much time to prepare for the audition. I got the call on April 26, 2012, which I think is cool because it was just six years ago. It was for the next day. There were four pages of sides and they asked me to prepare a physical comedy bit. So there was no singing. It was just physicality. So I stayed up until four in the morning on the quad out in front of my dorm at school, just preparing this physical comedy routine.

And then I had to do the same thing the next day for the callback, which was to come up with a new routine – a dance to Billy Jean by Michael Jackson intentionally bad. And there was a bee trying to attack me. That was my audition. It was wild. Crazy. I’m still dancing to Billy Jean. 

How do you maintain your stamina during such an energy-filled show?
Ethan Slater:
I have a lot of fun doing the show. It’s sort of a juggernaut of a show. It’s impossible to slow down once you start, so I try to take care of myself outside of the theater. And then once the show starts, I’m just sort of going and I don’t really have a break. That is a really good way to keep energy up. To not let yourself think about it. Otherwise, I’m at physical therapy a lot and getting massages. It really does take a village to keep a Broadway show running. Not just for me, for everyone in the cast. It’s a really physical ensemble.

Adults love this musical. Was that always the plan? 
Ethan Slater:
Totally. From day one, Tina Landau, who is the director, talked a lot about how this show is more akin to the 20th century physical comedians, sort of the silent film comedians, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy – off of whom the cartoon is also based. So we were trying to tap into that, which is physical comedy that is not meant for kids. But kids are going to enjoy it, because it’s funny.

There was always an effort to approach it as a musical with these characters. It’s a totally original story with original music. And that was really important. It was not making a lowest common denominator kid’s show, but making a great show with these famous characters.

You started working with the show while you were a student at Vassar. When did you know it was going to become something that could be seen by many and maybe come to Broadway? 
Ethan Slater:
I spent about two years working on it before I had any real confidence that it was going to become something that the public saw. It was actually to Nickelodeon’s credit. Every step of the way they said we are not going to do this just to do it. We are only going to keep moving forward if we think that it is bringing something new to SpongeBob, but also bringing something new to the stage. 

And I personally think that Tina Landau is pretty innovative. She did bring something new to both parties. It was always we’re not necessarily moving forward. So I always doubted it until we found out that we were going to Chicago. And that was another little victory.

The show could have gone really wrong. What was in your mind when you decided to become involved with the show? 
Ethan Slater: 
When I first took on the role, the big reason that I did it was because I was told by my professor at school that if you pass up an opportunity to work with Tina Landau you’re going to regret it. And I had been studying her book, Viewpoints, at the time. So I was thinking, yeah, duh. No matter what this is, I want to be in a room with her.

That’s sort of how I felt about each workshop. I immediately felt that this was a great show because of her vision. I immediately was converted. But I was skeptical originally about a SpongeBob musical because it could go so wrong. But we were steered in the right direction immediately. Each little workshop was sort of intrinsically fulfilling. We were getting these creative experiences, getting to work in this beautifully artistic room with amazing artists. And so each little experience was, in and of itself, really rewarding.

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