For four years, nobody quite knew that Ethan Slater had been secretly diving under the sea between classes. The sophomore at Vassar was just looking for a summer stage gig, as any theater student would be, when a chance audition landed him a top-secret role which, essentially, nobody knew existed yet.
Nickelodeon had been considering a stage adaptation of SpongeBob SquarePants as early as 2008, but with a cartoon icon as beloved as SpongeBob, the feat of casting could have been considered an almost impossible challenge. Until they found Slater, who became the musical’s one and only SpongeBob across four years of workshops.
“To me, he is SpongeBob,” says director Tina Landau. “He has the heart and the charm of the character, and he has the physical chops and comedic timing to pull off the antics, and he has an amazing ability to become elastic or make it seem that his face is morphing. But at essence, he’s deeply lovable. We knew we had to find someone that was everything extreme and out-there and crazy that SpongeBob was, but at the core, was this beautiful, innocent, optimistic heart, and that’s what Ethan is.”
Now, the secret is out, and 23-year-old Slater (24 in a week!) is about to make his splashy debut when The SpongeBob Musical makes its world premiere this June in Chicago. (A Broadway run is expected thereafter.)
So, if nautical nonsense be something you wish, then soak up some Slater — the next big thing this side of Bikini Bottom.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What does a person sing when auditioning for SpongeBob?
ETHAN SLATER: I was actually auditioning for Romeo and Juliet, auditioning for Benvolio, and the casting director was also casting this secret project that they called me in for a couple weeks later. He said, ‘I can only tell you that it’s the Untitled Tina Landau Project, but I’m going to send you an e-mail and you’ll understand.’ So I was sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a beanbag chair holding a plush doll of SpongeBob and looking at a poster of SpongeBob, when I opened an e-mail and attached was a picture of SpongeBob, and that was when I realized what I would be auditioning for.
Yeah! I mean, I grew up with SpongeBob — it came out in 1999, right before I turned 7. So it’s been a part of my life and all my friends’ lives and defined our humor, in a way. If I had been in any of my friends’ dorms, something like that probably would have happened.
What happened with Romeo and Juliet?
I had to drop out, which was a bit of a bummer. But worth it!
What was the secret to unlocking the character?
Originally, they asked me for a lot of physical comedy. My first audition, I went in and tried to put on my sweatshirt but it was rebelling against me. And they didn’t ask for the voice, and I didn’t do it, but the next week I came in again, did another physical comedy routine — which was a dance to “Billie Jean,” but there was a bee attacking me starting at about 35 seconds in — and then I did the voice. I’ve done some work on the voice and a little bit on the laugh, but the voice is secondary to figuring out the human core and the emotional and relatable center of SpongeBob. I mean, yes, I’m a sponge, but really I’m a human. We’ve really been working from the inside out, and the voice comes out of that. It’s an homage to Tom Kenny’s amazing voice acting, and the laugh is there and there are elements that are clearly SpongeBob, but it’s also my take on it, in the way where it’s the most truthful.
Do you ever find yourself taking SpongeBob out of the rehearsal room with you?
I’m embracing the complete optimism of SpongeBob outside of rehearsal. In the room when I’m playing SpongeBob, I’m optimistic and I’m happy and I smile in the face of those who are upset in order to make them happier. You know, there’s this overwhelming optimism. And I’ve been lucky enough to have that become a part of my life. I like to think that it’s influenced me. I definitely feel it.
Do your friends notice when you start SpongeBobbing?
Every once in a while. [laughs]
Your co-star Danny Skinner has played Patrick since early workshops as well. Does your friendship mirror the characters now?
More than you could know, asking that question. We’ve become incredibly close. We’re best friends on stage but we’re really best friends in real life now, and that’s pretty spectacular. When we’re not working on the show and we have time off, I see him consistently. I go to his house all the time and we watch football or we watch The SpongeBob Movie and re-enact the lines together. We’ve worked on a web series. I think there’s something to the way the characters have seeped into our lives and our relationship. He’s a blast.
You kept this secret for so long in college. Once it’s out and everyone knows, what were you asked the most?
Two things pop into my mind: The first one is usually, “Tina Landau!? She’s the best!” And the other thing I hear from everyone is about the musicians who have contributed songs, everything from, “How cool, I love John Legend,” to “Sara Bareilles is amazing.” Cyndi Lauper, Aerosmith… all generations of people have a reaction to the list. People tend to ask whether it’s a jukebox musical or whether the songs really work, and that’s a really fun question to answer because the songs really do work. Over time, every time I heard a new song in the show, I decide it’s my new favorite song.
What’s your favorite today?
Right now? The Panic! At the Disco song is amazing. And the Yolanda Adams song, which Patrick gets to sing. The songs are so specific to the artist, but they work brilliantly well together thanks to the genius of Tom Kitt. Storytelling-wise, they move the action, and that’s something I think is incredibly important to the Chicago audience and the Broadway audience, to actually tell a theatrical story and tell it well, and these songs really do it.
Have you been wearing more yellow these days, or is that mostly work attire?
Yellow is mostly work. And because I’m a redhead, it’s not the best color for me. But I’ve got to tell you, somehow they make it work so well. [giggles]
The SpongeBob Musical runs from June 7 through July 10 at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre.
Check out an exclusive first look below: