The star dressing room at the Palace has no sign on the door that says “Judy Garland Slept Here,” but its current inhabitant insists that she did. “Right here on this couch.”
It’s O.K., Ethan Slater is entitled to a little surrealism these days. He has bubbled to the top of some normally turbulent critical waters and become Broadway’s breakout star of the year. Whether or not that leads to a Tony Award—well, we’ll see…
He did it the hard way, too—in the title role of SpongeBob SquarePants, the first Broadway musical to be spawned from an animated cable kids-show (which, let’s face it, is about as far from Main Stem smash material as a show can possibly get). But the disarming, child-believing charm that the Nickelodeon series exudes caught everyone off-guard, touched soft spots in long-calcified critics and turned into a hit.
No small thanks to Slater, either. He’s the show’s chief cheerleader, a wellspring of affable silliness. Off-stage, he also gives every impression of being an unflappable live-action cartoon, maintaining a steady, goofy grin as if he really did step out of the funny-papers. (Probably that just masks the disbelief of a new stranger-in-paradise.)
With minimal coaxing, he’ll gingerly conduct a tour of “the Garland room” and show off his archeological findings of other former Palace residents. The doorframe to the bathroom, just for instance, is done up in a grayish green—“Glenn Close’s color”—which has begun to chip since Sunset Boulevard departed. “You can see it’s rubbing away,” he points out. “There are about 15 different layers of paint, each going back to whoever had this dressing room.” Their shows fade in review—An American in Paris, Holler If Ya Hear Me, Annie, all the way back to Liza’s at the Palace and beyond.
“They actually repainted this after we moved in,” he said, gesturing to the bathroom door, which is now a pristine eggshell white—or, as future occupants could call it, Slater white. “Ah, my signature color,” he shoots back, merrily seconding the motion.
Returning to the couch and reality, he betrays the stunned numbness that generally accompanies overnight stardom. “I like to say it’s a dream come true—a dream I never thought I had. I have to pinch myself constantly to make sure I’m here.”
As well he might: Slater is one of ten fresh new faces that director Tina Landau has unleashed on Broadway for the first time (there’s his Theatre World Award right there), and her stage vibrates with the high-octane exuberance of a young ensemble.
They certainly have their work cut out for them, turning 2-D into 3-D, breathing some identifiable depth into cartoon critters. SpongeBob SquarePants himself, a cockeyed optimist if ever there was one), is a sea sponge that looks like a kitchen sponge, lives in a submerged pineapple and works as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab.
His best buds are a slow-witted starfish named Patrick Star (Danny Skinner) and a karate-kicking Texas squirrel named Sandy Cheeks (Lilli Cooper). In the hissible camp are a crabby octopus named Squidward Q. Tentacles (Mary Poppins’ Gavin Lee, who gets in some show-stopping, four-footed hoofing) and an ornery copepod named Sheldon Plankton (played just short of mustache-twirling by Wesley Taylor).
All reside in comic chaos at the bottom of the sea in a place called Bikini Bottom, which, as the new musical begins, is menaced by Mount Humongous threatening to blow its volcanic stack—a hot-and-cold-running set-up that’s pulled off easier in broad strokes than on Broadway. Clearly, this is a job for SpongeBob SquarePants.
“I have a blast from beginning to end, but my best moment is my first one,” Slater admitted. “My alarm clock goes off, I jump out of bed, and I say, ‘Good morning, World and All Who Inhabit It,’ and, as I’m doing that, I’m looking right into the audience. I can’t see anyone because of the lighting—just the silhouettes of 1,700 people in the Palace about to go on this journey with us. That moment, every single night is so amazing—indescribable, really. It’s doubly incredible because the moment right before that moment I’m doing my last-minute warm-ups, trying to see ‘Is my voice there? Is my body ready?’ There are a lot of voices in my head, then it all begins.”
Before every show, he has to go through a regiment of vocal and physical exercises to stay loose and limber like any self-respecting cartoon. What price stardom!
Somehow—maybe it’s that insistently sunny optimism he seems to radiate naturally—Slater is a perfect fit for SpongeBob. You could even accuse him of being over-rehearsed since they go back such a long way—to 1999 when the character first hit the airwaves and the actor first hit seven. He got cast in the part while a sophomore at Vassar and has performed it from Workshop One through the Chicago tryouts to Broadway—an ordeal of five years and three extreme makeovers. He’s 25.
For stage presentation, SpongeBob SquarePants has been rounded off at the edges with relatable humanity. Landau and her costume designer, David Zinn, peeled back the cartoony qualities to show the heart of the character. There are no extreme get-ups or prosthetics. “It’s, actually, pretty much this,” Slater said, flashing his signature grin.
“Our very first step for us five years ago was, just, movement. How do you take this character and put him on stage without prosthetics or a square foam outfit? What we learned was it’s all about silhouettes, finding the shape of the character and then working in the acrobatics and flexibility. Basically, I’m high-energy but calm inside. Tina and I worked on that. She said, ‘If you’re frantic on the outside, you have to be really calm on the inside—or else it’ll read labored. Calmness makes it truthful.’”
Vocally, Slater has dialed back on the nasal extremes actor Tom Kenny affects for the series. “My voice has to be such you can listen to it for two and a half hours and not want to pull out your hair. It feels more human because we worked really hard on making sure that everything was coming from a grounded, human, emotional place.”
That said, he’s still—literally—a lifelong fan of Kenny’s. The two finally met at the Chicago opening and, again, at the New York opening. (Kenny recorded the voice of the French narrator in the show and co-authored its best song, “Best Day Ever.”)
The musical score is a patchwork crazy-quilt of 25 different songwriters—there are a few trunk songs like the David Bowie/Brian Eno “No Control,” but mostly it’s filled with originals from names like Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert, Plain White T’s, The Flaming Lips, Yolanda Adams, Sara Bareilles, They Might Be Giants and Lady Antebellum.
“Even though each song stands on its own and is clearly written by the artist who wrote it, I love the orchestrating and arranging Tom Kitt did in bringing things together and creating reprises. There are themes that are played throughout the underscoring—melodies that are links to characters and emotions in the show.
“The eclectic score is a gift to me because it means I get to sing in so many different styles,” said Slater. “It’s really fun to vary it up—to rock out to a Cyndi Lauper song or try to belt my face off during a Panic! At the Disco song.” His favorite song varies by the week. The current champ is “I Guess I Miss You” by John (La La Land) Legend. “It’s a ballad SpongeBob and Patrick sing from opposite sides of the stage when they realize, even though they had a fight, that’s not going to define their relationship.”
Their on-stage friendship extends off stage as well. Skinner came on board the project shortly after Slater, and they’ve bonded during this shakedown cruise to Broadway. Their leading lady, Cooper, entered the show at the Chicago stop. She and Slater were Vassar classmates and even did a show in New York that won a Best of the Fringe Festival Award. He happened to be reading for auditions the day of her final callback, and it was that Click! that usually just happens in Mickey-Judy flicks.
Two things determined what Slater would take from the TV show and put on stage: “Tina, then trial-and-error. There’s a whole arsenal of wacky things that didn’t make it into the show. There used to be a sequence where Patrick and I raced each other in slow motion to Chariots of Fire. He would try to pull me back by dragging my face back and it would stay in that position. It was a great bit, but it didn’t make any sense in the story. Now, I have a little moment—maybe only the first couple of rows can see this—when Plankton pushes his face up against mine and my face will freeze in that position. It’s a tiny moment that is colored by the work we did.”
Yes, his “research” goes on: “I still watch the TV show periodically, but I no longer study it. I really think I need to keep it my own, keep the version of it that we built, but I definitely like to check in. Also, I just love the show so I often watch it for fun.”
If there is anything that he watches more than episodes of SpongeBob, it’s the physical comedians that inspired the character’s creation: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy. SpongeBob was—and could only have been—created by a marine biologist-turned-animator: Stephen Hillenburg.
Hillenburg’s brainchild became a media franchise that, as of late 2017, has generated $13 billion in merchandising revenue for Nickelodeon. It’s the network’s highest rated series—hardly the Broadway long-shot that myopic insiders imagined.
Given how stage elitists were stacking the deck against the show, Slater was understandably queasy about reviews. “I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to read them at all—but that I was going to read the anyway because I’m weak. By the opening night party, I had decided I wasn’t going to read them until the morning, and I didn’t, but my cast mates told me that it [was] all right.
“You’re always nervous about what critics say—about what anybody has to say, really. That’s part of being so vulnerable. But, on the other side of that, I felt very confident in the show and in the work we’ve all put in—from Tina’s direction to the moments we all share on stage every night. No critical reception could change that.”
Yes, but who knew SpongeBob would be greeted with a critical “Hallelujah Chorus”?