Tonys 2018: Ethan Slater on Humanizing 'SpongeBob SquarePants' for the Stage
The nominee for lead actor in a musical talks about becoming one with the sponge and his six-year journey to bring the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon to life.
Ethan Slater remembers the day he was cast in SpongeBob SquarePants: April 30, 2012. He was on a train back to school at Vassar when he received the call that he'd landed the role as the eponymous sponge in an early workshop of the musical. Cut to six years later, and Slater, who turns 26 next weekend, is nominated for a Tony Award for his Broadway debut in the show, which earned 12 noms in total, tying with Mean Girls for the most of any production this season.
SpongeBob SquarePants is an original story by Kyle Jarrow about how the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon's porous hero and his friends save their underwater home, Bikini Bottom, from the threat of a volcanic eruption. But instead of being dressed in amusement park–style costumes, the performers rely on movement and voice techniques to bring the animated characters to life.
"I just had this great moment where I was like, 'Oh, I don't have to think about my posture at all anymore,'" Slater says. "When the show starts, I am in my SpongeBob stance, and I walk like SpongeBob, and the first step that I take, I am SpongeBob."
In his review of the show for The Hollywood Reporter, chief theater critic David Rooney wrote: "Rather than stuff Ethan Slater in a box as the squishy title character, [designer David Zinn] puts the fit young actor in a yellow shirt, plaid clamdiggers, suspenders and a red tie, leaving him to evoke SpongeBob with his helium voice, irrepressible otimism and bouncy walk."
During the run-up to the Tony Awards on June 10, THR spoke with Slater about bringing the cartoon to the stage, keeping himself healthy in order to do eight physically demanding shows a week, and his inspirations for the role.
You just found the email inviting you to a final SpongeBob callback. What did you prepare for that audition?
My callback was a dance to the entirety of "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson, and while I was doing the dance, a bee was trying to sting me. That was a bit. It was my mimed bee.
The movement of the character is so key. Do you have any dance or gymnastics training?
The main gymnastics training I got was through wrestling. I was a wrestler in high school, and that was a pretty big part of my life. When you warm up for wrestling, the more flamboyant warm-ups are cartwheels and flips. It's a fun game that people do, which is to get crazier and crazier warm-ups. Those really played into the SpongeBob physicality in a good way.
You have a famously long warm-up to get ready for a performance. What do you do to prepare?
I start with a pretty yoga-based warm-up. I do jumping jacks and burpees, and I do a lot of dynamic stretching. And then over the course of the past six or so months, I’ve been adding my physical therapy workouts into it. I do a headstand and handstand series, so I do a lot of inversions. I've just started taking yoga classes for the first time this month, and I'm loving it.
Who were some of your inspirations for SpongeBob?
Some of the major influences were the the physical comedians of the 20th century. I watched a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I watched Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello — even the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges a little bit.
You were a fan of SpongeBob growing up. Did you watch all of the episodes to prepare?
I definitely watched all of the episodes in the first five seasons. The rest of the episodes, I have probably seen 85 percent, or maybe more. They've been coming out at such a rapid pace, and I revisit old ones so frequently.
Did you get to meet any of the pop stars who wrote the musical's score?
I got to meet Cyndi Lauper yesterday, which was pretty awesome. She's such a rock star. I've gotten to meet Sara Bareilles a couple of times. I'm just a such a massive fan of hers, from her albums to Waitress to everything that she does. To be a fan of somebody and then find out that they have a good heart and are kind is really heartwarming. Tom Higgenson of The Plain White T's has been incredibly supportive, and we've gotten to perform together a couple of times.
Have you met Tom Kenny, who voiced the cartoon?
I got to meet him at opening night [of the pre-Broadway tryout] in Chicago, and we showed up wearing the same thing to the party, which was pretty incredible. We were both wearing a grey blazer, white shirt, red tie and jeans. He said we were like two different takes on James Bond.
Did he give you any advice about playing the character?
He has steered a little bit clear of that. The big piece of advice he did say was: never wear yellow, always wear a red tie.